Functional Foods: Beneficial by Design

by Mardelyn Schultz

When you walk into a grocery store or watch television, it’s hard to miss the myriad of advertisements touting food items enhanced with special features. Products like eggs containing omega 3 fatty acids or yogurts compromised of a specific type of probiotic blend are considered ‘functional foods.’ While that term implies that conventional foods are subpar, it is not a mystery that all foods contain a nutritive value that may take part in the functionality of the body, and there is no definitive legal term identified in the United States. Because of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, however, health claims can be used on packaged food items4 that allow functional foods to be generally recognized by the public.


What are functional foods?

By definition, functional foods are enhanced beyond the standard nutritive value to promote general well-being or reduce the risk of certain conditions1, 3. Functional foods can be classified as: foods either modified or unmodified that are considered healthy or nutritious, foods that require supervision by a medical professional, and foods developed for specific uses1.

An example of a functional food is yogurt, which is known for providing a good source of probiotics. Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide beneficial effects pertaining to the microflora of the gastrointestinal tract of the host2. Yogurt is also a good source of calcium, which is known to be beneficial for bone health. Since probiotics and calcium naturally occur in yogurt, this would be considered an unmodified functional food item. However, food manufacturers may claim that a particular brand contains a specific type of probiotic that is supported by research to be more beneficial. When a food item is altered to increase its value or to make a health claim, it is considered a modified functional food.

Functional foods and modified functional foods typically promote consumer health in general, but others are not intended for broad consumption. Medical foods are for individuals who have special nutritional needs, and they sometimes require supervision by a healthcare provider. These food items are designed to help manage or decrease complications associated with certain conditions, and they must include a label describing intended use4. Enteral formulas for individuals on nutrition support are a good example of medical foods. Infant formulas, another good example, are specifically developed to support the growth and development of babies, but they do not necessarily need a prescription or a doctor’s supervision.

As researchers continue to discover how important food is for health, individuals will be interested in applying this information, developing new foods, and even improving the growth and support of the foods in our supply. As this area of nutrition continues to evolve, it is important to keep in mind that it is just one of the many elements that encompass health and well-being.


  1. Denny, Sharon. (2014, July). Plates With Purpose: What Are Functional Foods? It’s About Eating Right. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  2. Farnworth, Edward R.; Ed. Robert E. C. Wildman. (2007). Probiotics and Prebiotics. Handbook of Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods Second Edition. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
  3. EUFIC. (2014, Sept. 12) Functional foods. The European Food Information Council.
  4. Nutrition Education and Labeling Act of 1990. (1990, November 8). Pub. L. 101-535. 104 Stat. 2353.

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