As the culture of health consciousness continues to gain grounds, consumers are seeking out products that offer health enhancing value propositions. This market phenomenon has driven consumer goods manufacturing firms to come up with products that contain ingredients which offer additional health benefits apart from the usual requirements of the product. It is these ingredients that are referred to as functional ingredients.
Functional food is a natural or processed food that contains known biologically active compounds which, when defined in quantitative and qualitative amounts, provides a clinically proven and documented health benefit, and thus, an important source in the prevention, management and treatment of chronic diseases of this modern age. The biologically active compounds added to functional foods could be vitamins, live cultures of microorganisms (probiotics), dietary fibre, phytochemicals, minerals, fatty acids and modified genes.
Some nutrients such as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), amino acids, folic acid, iron, zinc and iodine are beneficial for functional foods directed at pregnant and lactating women, which could positively influence short and long term development of the child.
Skeletal development during adolescence can be influenced by calcium, vitamins D and K and fluoride.
Functional ingredients beneficial for immune function include antioxidant vitamins, l-arginine, nucleotides and nucleosides. Probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics (mixtures of probiotics and prebiotics), are beneficial for gastrointestinal health.
Potential benefits of probiotics are reduced incidence or severity of GI infections, alleviation of lactose intolerance, overall improvement in gut function.
Prebiotics have the potentials to reduce risk of colon cancer and also enhance the absorption of minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
Some ingredients that are beneficial for mental health include glucose and sucrose. Caffeine can lead to improvement in cognitive performance with effects on reaction time, vigilance, memory and psychomotor performance.
B vitamins are beneficial for mental health and cognitive performance in older people. The amino acid tryptophan is beneficial for insomnia.
Categories of functional foods with examples include;
(I) Basic foods e.g. carrots (containing the natural level of the antioxidant beta carotene), processed foods – oat bran cereal (containing the natural level of beta-glucan)
(ii) Processed foods with added ingredients e.g. Calcium-enriched fruit juice
(iii) Foods enhanced to have more of a functional component (via traditional breeding, special livestock feeding or genetic engineering) e.g. tomatoes with higher levels of lycopene (an antioxidant carotenoid), oat bran with higher levels of beta glucan, eggs with omega-3 from flax
(iv) Isolated, purified preparations of active food ingredients (nutraceuticals) e.g. isoflavones from soy, omega-3 from fish oils.