Functional foods have health benefits

January 21, 2009|By LYNN LITTLE

Americans want to be healthy and are looking for foods that can help achieve that goal. More and more, we are purchasing foods that are not only nutritious but also provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients they contain. These foods are called "functional foods."

Functional foods

There are many functional foods.

If you eat oatmeal, which helps lower cholesterol, you are eating a functional food.

Fatty fish, such as salmon and herring, and certain tree nuts, such as walnuts and Brazil nuts, contain omega 3 fatty acids, which might help lower the risk for heart disease.

Fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals, which can reduce the risk for prostate cancer, heart disease and macular degeneration just to name a few.


Dairy foods might help protect against high blood pressure and colon cancer and might help with weight control.

Evaluating health claims

Some manufacturers add herbs, vitamins and minerals to their products but that does not necessarily mean there are healthful benefits. One way to know if there is a valid health benefit is whether there is a health claim on the label.

Through the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, health claims can be authorized only if there is significant scientific agreement among qualified experts regarding the claim. Generally, foods that have a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved health claim are supported by two dozen or more published clinical trials. Currently, there are 14 approved health claims allowed on food labels (for a complete list, go to

Some of the approved health claims include calcium for the reduced risk of osteoporosis, low sodium for reduced risk of high blood pressure, low dietary fat for reduced risk of cancer, low saturated fat and cholesterol for reduced risk of coronary heart disease, fiber for reduced risk of some types of cancer, sugar alcohols for reduced risk of dental caries, and fruits, vegetables and grain products high in soluble fiber for decreased risk of heart disease.

A healthful diet is one key to lifelong health. The best way to enjoy the benefits that functional foods can offer is to choose a wide variety of foods from all the food groups. Include whole grains, low-fat dairy products, a variety of fruits and vegetables, and different types of fish, lean meats and poultry.

These foods naturally contain the functional elements many people desire.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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