Dr Geoffrey Savage
19 August 2005
Hardly a week goes by without a new functional food being promoted in the media. Each promises health benefits we can hardly ignore. How can we select the best and discard the rubbish?
The term functional food is a curious and confusing concept. All foods have a function. We consume them to supply our needs for energy, protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. This is their prime function. A functional food, however, is a food or a food ingredient which may provide a health benefit beyond that expected from the nutrients it contains, such as reducing cancer incidence or having a cholesterol-lowering effect.
Health conscious baby-boomers have made functional foods the leading trend in the US food industry. However, the concept is not new. Fifty years ago a small bottle of pro-biotic drink was introduced onto the Japanese market and since then the functional food industry has grown at an enormous speed. Currently there are about 400 new functional foods launched each year in Japan, which, incidentally, is the only country in the world to have a regulatory process to approve these foods under the heading “Foods for Specific Health Use”. While many foods have been licensed for use in this way, there are hundreds more which make all sorts of health claims.
The health-giving attributes of foods have been recognised for more than 2500 years. As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. There is good evidence that foods like oats, soy, flaxseed, tomatoes, garlic, broccoli and other cabbage-like vegetables, citrus fruits, cranberry, tea and red wine can all deliver some impressive health benefits. The scientific evidence that they are effective is reliable and some evidence has been confirmed using clinical trials with humans. The problem is that considerable quantities of these “special foods” would have to be consumed every day to achieve the maximum effect and we simply do not have the capacity to eat such large volumes of a few things.
An apparent solution would be to take these products as extracts in pills, but are they as effective as the original natural food? In many cases the effectiveness of these “health food shop pills” has not been properly tested. When they have been tested the results have been disappointing. It appears that many of these extracts are less effective when taken in isolation. Without doubt the original food offers the best and cheapest way to source these functional ingredients. Fresh tasty foods are fun to eat, but where is the enjoyment in popping pills?
Clearly all foods are functional, because they provide taste, aroma or nutritive value. But it is interesting to note that the majority of the foods being marketed as functional are plant based. There is overwhelming evidence from epidemiological and clinical trials to show that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of chronic disease, particularly cancer, but this does not mean that meat, fish, or milk should be removed from our diets.
Why has there been a rise in interest in functional foods? The baby-boomers have grown up in a technological age where science has provided new inventions and new wonders year by year. They have seen their world expand in terms of experiences - things to do, see and play with - than any other generation. Consumer goods are available in increasing abundance. The problem is that the baby boomers are aging. They want to live longer and stay healthy to enjoy these offerings of the modern world but are prone to the diseases of abundance. Face-lift surgery and various types of physical augmentation are now almost routine. Medical science, according to the baby-boomers, can fix most problems.
Exercise is undoubtedly part of their strategy too, but there is an increasing realisation that certain foods might provide some extra advantages. People are thinking “I want it … I need it … their function is important to me.”
We should not allow the baby-boomers to turn eating into a serious quest for eternal health. Food should be savoured, enjoyed and shared with friends. Food has an enormous psychological impact on our lives and we should follow the advice given consistently by dieticians: eat a wide range of foods, because each one offers different characteristics and a particular function.
Dr Geoffrey Savage is Senior Lecturer in Food Biochemistry at Lincoln University.