All About Functional Foods

Functional Foods

Words: Dr Rajgopal NIDAMBOOR

Question: I’ve heard and read a great deal about functional foods, nutraceuticals, or super-nutrients, among others. They sound simple, they also sound complex. Could you please help me separate the chaff from the grain, as it were, and make it comprehensible for me and other TW360 readers, who may be interested in the growing concept, too?

C J, Bengaluru

Answer: It’s a good question. You know it, don’t you? That — when you consume functional foods on a regular basis you will be able to reduce the risk of illness. You sure know this too. That functional foods can help you in the management of several diseases, including cancer, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis etc.,

Functional foods include whole, fortified, enriched or enhanced foods, and dietary supplements.

The term, ‘functional foods’ is used to signify foods and their components that offer health benefits beyond the scope of basic nutrition.

Put simply, functional foods meet our minimum daily requirements of nutrients. They also promote vibrant health and reduce the risk of disease, as already cited.

Nutrition scientists have identified hundreds of compounds with functional qualities. Also, new discoveries are being constantly made surrounding the complex benefits of functional foods. More of this later.


Functional foods are sometimes called phytochemicals, or more popularly — nutraceuticals.

By way of definition, functional foods or phytochemicals are natural, bioactive chemical compounds that have health-promoting, disease-preventing, and medicinal properties.

You may sure think of all foods as being functional because they provide nutrients. You are right. However, functional foods denote foods that have health-promoting ingredients, or natural components. These are components that have been found to have potential benefits in the body. They include whole foods that are fortified, enriched or enhanced, and also dietary supplements. They all have beneficial effects on our health.


The concept of functional foods is not a recent phenomenon. It has been perfected over the years. To pick one classical example: food manufacturers began adding iodine to salt in an effort to prevent goitre, in the early 1900s. This was, perhaps, the first attempt man made at creating a functional food through enrichment.

Efforts are being made to improve and augment functional foods on a continual basis.

How A Food Becomes ‘Functional’

As you know, many of the foods we consume are natural, whole foods. They do not become functional foods, just because we know them by that name.

Nature has provided us with many fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, and dairy and meat products. All of them contain several natural nutritive components. These components convey benefits far beyond fundamental nutrition.


  • Lycopene, the functional food component, in tomato
  • Omega-3 fatty acids in salmon
  • Saponin in soya
  • Functional foods can be derived from agricultural breeding, or through added nutrients/ingredients too.

The nutritional content of certain crops can also be engineered through the same agricultural techniques that are used to bring about beneficial traits in plants and animals. To think of just two major examples: beta-carotene-rich rice and vitamin-enhanced soybean.

While research is going on to improve the nutritional quality of many other crops, there are countless examples of fortified foods available in the market. Orange juice, for instance, is fortified with calcium. Likewise, cereals and flour, with added vitamins or minerals, or folic acid, are also available.

Note : For those of you who cannot resist tea and chocolates, there’s no need to worry. Recent studies suggest that tea and chocolates have functional traits that are beneficial to our health.

Important Health Benefits Of Functional Foods

Research suggests that eating functional foods on a regular basis can help reduce the risk of illness. It can also aid in the management of many diseases. These include simple disorders, such as eye infections and major illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, menopausal symptoms, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis.

Getting More Functional Foods In Our Diet

There is no single magic potion, or formula, that can cure, or prevent health affections. The best and easiest thing for us to do is simple. Eat a balanced and varied diet. This should include at least 4-5 servings of fruits and vegetables as well as foods with added beneficial components.

Learn also how to read labels and scan through what experts advise through articles in the media. However, before you decide to make any major dietary changes, you need to take adequate time to weigh up your personal health.

So, speak to your physician or healthcare professional, or nutritionist/dietitian, on ways that can help reduce your risk of certain diseases.

Dr RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR, PhD, is a wellness physician-writer-editor, independent researcher, critic, columnist, author and publisher. His published work includes hundreds of newspaper, magazine, web articles, essays, meditations, columns, and critiques on a host of subjects, eight books on natural health, two coffee table tomes and an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy. He is Chief Wellness Officer, Docco360 — a mobile health application/platform connecting patients with Ayurveda, homeopathic and Unani physicians, and nutrition therapists, among others, from the comfort of their home — and, Editor-in-Chief, ThinkWellness360. 

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