Skip main navigation

Functional foods

Nam semper diam ante, id pretium magna ultricies eget.
DAVID KANNAR: So functional foods– perhaps it’s best to categorise them as medical foods and fortified foods. And then there’s natural foods with some sort of an advantage that you can take by– like, they might be high in vitamin C, if you want. So let’s take a fortified food. So an example of that would be salt with iodine, milk with calcium obviously, but milk with vitamin D. Another medical food would be a margarine full of sterols or containing sterols, so that you can actually reduce the cholesterol in your diet. So it blocks the uptake of dietary cholesterol.
And then– but I think the more modern functional foods, the ones coming out that have a natural advantage, and the food is then, say, standardised on, I’ll say a low GI sugar, for example, containing more flavonoids. So there’s a lot of functional foods, and more and more will come on the market with any luck in the next few years. This is a tightly regulated area because clearly you can’t be making– and I understand why– foods that– where there’s a claim that’s actually not validated– a medical claim, a claim in prevention for a disease process or a disease endpoint. So clearly that has to be tightly regulated.
When there’s a claim made in the future– I think particularly here in Australia, and in Europe, and in other– and the US is making more effort to actually control the claims that are made on a food, particularly a medical claim or a preventative claim for health reasons. I’m hoping in the future, future functional foods will focus more on the endogenous nutrients. So for example, vitamin E. We know that the biological forms of these vitamins are, in fact– may be different than those in the supplements. And so vitamin E, for example, in a food. We might hopefully see better foods come forward with standardised amounts of the natural form or the biological form of the vitamin.
So I’m hoping that we exploit these natural advantages of the food. And that would, say, be a food containing a certain amount, so that you can start to rely on the food a little bit more. Another example would be, say, garlic. If you want garlic to actually lower cholesterol from the diet, then surely it can do that. But it’s also able to cope with and manage endogenous production also, the body’s own production of cholesterol. But relying on that food– garlic at the moment is cultivated all over the world. It varies in its photochemical content.
And so to start to rely on it as more of an intervention, then the food has to actually be standardised to the photochemical content, so it’s consistent. So we’ll probably see more of that type of consistent food that exploits the biological effect or the natural chemicals, phytochemicals, vitamins, and nutrients. So if I was a member of the public looking for a functional food, for me, I think the question would be on reproducibility. What are my expectations? And so if I want a clear intervention with a medical endpoint or a clear clinical endpoint, then you have to understand that the food may not be able to do that, unless it has some sort of functionality that’s been clinically assessed.
A medical or a clinical endpoint is something that’s measurable. It’s a response. So for example, if you’ve got high cholesterol, you want cholesterol– total cholesterol reducing. So that’s an endpoint that we need to understand, so that you’re– before and then after the intervention, after the food, so you’ve got a clear drop in cholesterol. The benefits of functional foods are that, as I said before, we account for known and the unknown compounds. So that’s vitamins, the nutrient interactions, the interactions between the phytochemicals and the non-nutrient compounds as well, like fibre delivering a nutrient or a phytochemical to a specific point in your body.
So those type of effects, I think from– are benefits to me that the food could offer over the supplements. However, as I said before, if a garlic supplement accounts for the whole garlic, and is standardised on a photochemical that gives it such reproducibility, then that’s a good move. The limits are then, obviously, if you’re looking for this hard clinical endpoint. So reductions in cholesterol, or changes in vasculature, or some sort of disease process. To rely on that with a food that hasn’t been standardised or hasn’t been clinically tested is obviously problematic, unless it’s gone through some sort of clinical evaluation, or some sort of review, or standardisation, or so it’s improved and it’s reproducible in its effect.
So the future of functional foods, I think, is fairly bright. If we’re wanting to rely more on foods for clinical intervention, then obviously we have to study them more. We have to evaluate them more. We have to do more research on what’s in the food that’s actually making it work, and how can we measure that, so that there’s some sort of clinical endpoint that we can study and invalidate. So there’s an exciting future, I think, for food.

Watch David introduce food types known as ‘functional foods’, present examples of how they can be incorporated into our diet and discuss how they can benefit our health.

Find out more

In the See also section of this step, you can access a link to an article by the British Nutrition Foundation that provides more information on functional foods.

This article is from the free online

Food as Medicine

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education