The term “functional foods” refers to foods and their components that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. Functional foods do more than meet minimum daily nutrient requirements—they also can play a role in reducing the risk of disease and promoting good health. Biologically active components in functional foods impart health benefits or desirable physiological effects.
All foods have a function when consumed in proper balance as part of an overall healthy diet. Functional foods may include whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, which represent the simplest example. Those foods that have been fortified, enriched, or enhanced with nutrients, phytochemical, or botanicals, as well as dietary supplements, also fall within the realm of functional foods.
The functional attributes of many traditional foods are only now being discovered. Examples include phytoestrogens in soy foods and a variety of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables, such as lycopene in tomatoes. Still, new food products are being developed with beneficial components, with a focus on wellness and the reduced risk of chronic disease (i.e., foods and beverages containing pre-and probiotics to maintain gastrointestinal health, calcium-fortified beverages to maintain bone health, and dressings and spreads containing plant stanol and sterol esters, which may decrease the risk of heart disease).
Over two thousand years ago Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine.” Although the concept of functional foods is not entirely new, it has evolved considerably over the years. In the early 1900s food manufacturers in the United States began adding iodine to salt in an effort to prevent goiter, representing one of the first attempts at creating a functional food through fortification.
Other twentieth-century examples include vitamin A and D fortification of milk and niacin and folic acid fortification of grains. These early fortification examples, however, focused on reducing the risk of diseases of deficiency. In the latter part of the twentieth century, consumers began to focus on wellness and the reduction of chronic disease. Research now focuses frequently on the promotion of health through many lifestyle factors, including the consumption of an optimal diet. As of 2002, researchers have identified hundreds of food components with functional qualities, and they continue to make new discoveries surrounding the complex benefits of phytochemicals in foods.
Consumer interest in the relationship between diet and health has increased the demand for information on functional foods. Rapid advances in science and technology, increasing health-care costs, changes in food laws affecting label and product claims, an aging population, and a rising interest in attaining wellness through diet are among the factors fueling U.S. interest in functional foods. Credible scientific research indicates many potential health benefits from food components. These benefits could expand the health claims now permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The International Food Information Council (IFIC) has been researching awareness of, and attitudes about, functional foods, through both qualitative and quantitative research. In 2002 telephone surveys with U.S. consumers were conducted, building on quantitative data collected in 1998 and 2000.
As in 1998 and 2000, the vast majority of consumers believe that they have a “great amount” of control over their own health. Also, in comparing the effects of nutrition, exercise, and family health history on health, consumers believe that nutrition plays the greatest role (71 percent versus 63 percent and 41 percent, respectively). Therefore, it is no surprise that 93 percent of Americans believe that some foods have health benefits that go beyond basic nutrition and that 85 percent are interested in learning more about such foods. These levels of interest have been consistently strong since 1998.