These foods are considered functional foods

Many foods contain functional components that can be used to improve health in a targeted manner. Several hundred plant substances with medicinal effects have already been identified and assigned to specific groups of active substances based on their chemical structure. Professor Paul Walter, biochemist and nutrition expert, knows: “Only one in three people today eats the right food. It therefore makes sense for many people to eat foods that are enriched with certain additives.” 

Plant substances with medicinal effects

  • Broccoli and other cabbages contain  isothiocyanates . These activate detoxifying enzymes in the body and have an anti-cancer effect.
  • Soy products contain  isoflavones . These are very similar to the body’s own estrogens. So-called lignans from cereals,  berries  and  flaxseed are also  similar to estrogen. Isoflavones and lignans have a beneficial effect on hormone-dependent tissues and protect against cancer thanks to their antioxidant effect. In addition, they are of interest for therapy of hormone-dependent osteoporosis.
  • Carotenoids  give fruits and vegetables their yellow or red color. They are to protect the vessels.
  • The red tomato pigment  lycopene and lutein from  spinach  and cabbage appear   to reduce the risk of prostate and esophageal cancer .
  • Phenols  from  tea , berries and citrus fruits protect cells from damaging oxidizing substances.
  • Vegetable oils contain various  phytosterols  related to desirable cholesterol. In large quantities, they effectively lower blood lipids.
  • Onions, hot peppers and wine are rich in flavonoids. Like the catechins in green tea, flavonoids  have an antioxidant effect and may strengthen the immune system.
  • Selenium and vitamins C and E are found in many fruits and vegetables. They have an antioxidant effect and thus have a positive effect on the immune system. This protects them from cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Healthy and nutritious

Substances that are enriched with certain additives are, for example,  roughage , vitamins, trace elements, minerals, plant compounds or even living microorganisms with beneficial effects on the  intestinal flora . It is very important that these foods are presented and packaged in line with trends. Who wants to feed themselves in powder or tablet form or, like the astronauts, literally “out of a tube”? Hardly anyone in the long run.

Snacks and snacks, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly important in nutrition. That’s why functional components are very often integrated into popular foods: in bars, drinks, yoghurt, cereal flakes or other products that can be consumed quickly and without additional effort.

Medicine cabinet or refrigerator?

It is difficult to differentiate between  functional food  and medicinal products. Experts are arguing whether the new edibles are really health-promoting or just serve to increase sales in the food industry. Because so far only one thing is really certain: consumers have to dig deeper into their wallets for functional food.

The trend is also bearing some interesting fruit: the cholesterol bomb egg was changed to an omega egg by feeding flaxseed to chickens, which now contains essential fatty acids. A spoonful of ground flaxseed a day has the same effect as the new eggs and is also significantly cheaper.

Depending on the additional ingredient, the boundaries between food and medicine are blurred. Some modern functional foods, such as hypoallergenic infant formula, are very close to clinical feeding (tube feeding) products. The problem of differentiating between food and medicinal products is likely to intensify in the coming years.

False promises?

The designation of foods with additional benefits is already tricky today. Because they must not contain false promises and must not mislead consumers. Even if   you eat  a lot of foods with a promoting effect on high blood pressure  or  arteriosclerosis , you will not be able to protect yourself from a heart attack if you are extremely overweight or have other risk factors  .

In Switzerland, statements on the packaging such as “lowers cholesterol levels” or “strengthens the bones” are permitted. Claims to medical effects, so-called “health claims” (examples: “protects against osteoporosis” or “prevents prostate cancer”) are strictly prohibited.

Help, but not a substitute

All nutritionists agree on the importance of functional food in nutrition. It should be a supplement and  not a substitute  for a healthy diet. This is confirmed by the Zurich social and preventive medicine specialist Prof. Felix Gutzwiller, Prof. Paul Walter from Basel and Prof. Michael Teuber and Renato Amadò from the Institute for Food Sciences at ETH Zurich.

Functional or novel food is not a magic bullet to solve our nutritional and health problems. But it can be a handy addition.

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