What Exactly Are Functional Foods?

By now, you’re probably all too familiar with the buzzy term "superfood," which seemed to take the culinary world by storm just a few years ago. While the word is still used to describe anything from kale to goji berries to, yes, cockroach milk, it’s not the latest of-the-moment healthy eating moniker anymore.

Now, it’s all about functional foods, which the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines as “foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence." Here’s what you should know about these foods before you hit the grocery store.

They Have Specific Health Benefits

The whole point of classifying foods as “functional” (it seems) is to help people distinguish those foods that are proven to help your body out in some way. For instance, fiber-rich oatmeal has been shown to lower cholesterol, and fortified juices can give your body a needed calcium boost. Both of these foods are considered functional because of the science-based nutritional values that they provide.

They Aren’t Just Natural Foods

The tricky thing about functional foods, however, is they aren’t just whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and other items you’ll find around the perimeter of the grocery store. Functional foods include fortified items (cereal and the aforementioned orange juice), specially formulated food for medical conditions (like those gluten-free cookies!) and specialty foods like infant formula. So while these foods are considered “functional” for your health, not all functional foods are created equal. Having a glass of orange juice isn’t as healthy for you as eating an orange because of the sugar spike the former will give you. But, if you really need calcium, then it can do the job.

They Can Be Indulgent

Dark chocolate is, oh yes, a functional food. The cocoa in chocolate is proven to contain endorphin- and serotonin-boosting flavonoid, allowing this sweet indulgence to enjoy the distinction. So, functional foods don’t have to be quote-unquote “healthy.” This can be confusing if you don’t know what actually makes a food functional. Of course, this is not to say that you shouldn’t enjoy that delicious piece of chocolate from time to time, but it’s important to note that chocolate is not exactly a health food, even if it is “functional.”

They Aren’t Government-Regulated

As of now, there are no governmental or legal definitions of what is considered a functional food. Food companies will often label items as “heart healthy” or as “superfoods” to tout their products as good for you. The same can happen when it comes to functional foods. Being a savvy shopper is key to avoiding buying items that aren’t really all that great for you in the long run.

When It Comes to Food, Always Read the Label

Although functional foods can have health benefits, remember that whole foods (fresh fruits and vegetables in particular) typically outweigh processed foods or fortified foods on a nutritional level. Pay attention to the ingredients in any food product you want to buy, no matter what eye-catching or trendy terms are on the front of the box. In the end, simple food is usually healthier.

Natasha Burton has written for Women’s Health, Livestrong, MSN.com, Cosmopolitan.com, and WomansDay.com, among other print and online publications. She’s also the author of five books, including 101 Quizzes for Couples and The Little Black Book of Big Red Flags.

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