Functional Food: too much of a good thing?

Strictly speaking, all foods are "functional": They serve to supply nutrients. The English term functional food by definition refers to new foods that are intended to further promote health and are enriched for this purpose with additional ingredients: minerals, fiber, vitamins, trace elements, microorganisms. This sounds futuristic and fits the zeitgeist. The only question is whether there is any benefit behind it.

Functional foods no novelty

Functionally, nothing new. Already in the penultimate century, sailors discovered the connection between vitamin C deficiency and scurvy. Tooth decay, muscle wasting, weight loss and bleeding, they knew by (dried) fruit and (pickled) vegetables to avoid.

European consumers have yet to familiarize themselves with the many new products being sold as functional. For decades, Japanese have had the option of actively promoting health by eating certain foods. The effect is visible. Japanese women are less likely to develop breast cancer than American or European. In Japan, since 1993, foods with proven health benefits have been awarded by state health authorities.

Foshu or functional food?

In the meantime, more than 100 foods have received the coveted FOSHU label. New applications for the label must have one or more of the ingredients with scientifically recognized and proven positive effects on health. Individual proof of effect is no longer necessary. As a result, the number of FOSHU products is increasing rapidly. The articles range from calcium-containing tea to biscuits against iron deficiency, vitamin drinks to ice cream, which is enriched with lactic acid bacteria and fiber.

There are also beauty edibles in Japan: hyaluronic acid drinks or collagen for a more beautiful skin, gingko chips that reduce stress to improve health and appearance, and foods with stimulating substances. Europeans criticize too little rigor and certification choices. In America, by contrast, the market is booming with Japanese FOSHU foods.

Ingredients that can be certified

dietary fiberBeta Glucans, Wheat Bran, Psyllium
Oligosachharide and sugar alcoholsFructo-oligosaccharides, maltitol
peptides and proteinsCasein, phosphopeptites
Secondary plant ingredientsPhenols glycosides, terpenes, sterols
vitaminsBeta Carotene (Vitamin A), Vitamins C and E
ColineSoy and egg lecithin
Lactic acid bacteriaLactobacillus acidophilus La1
mineralsIron, calcium

Examples of functional foods

foodsSuspected health benefits
Probiotic cultures of microorganisms in fermented dairy productsImprovement and regulation of intestinal functions
Margarine, cheese spreads, yogurtsPlant sterols and stanols for lowering cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease
Eggs with essential omega-3 fatty acidsEggs with essential omega-3 fatty acids
Breakfast cerealsAddition of folic acid reduces the risk of spina bifida (open back) in newborns
Bread, cereal barIsoflavones reduces the risk of breast and prostate cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis
Low sodium productsReduce high blood pressure
High levels of soy protein, rich in soluble dietary fibersPositive effect on the cardiovascular system and digestion
Products with high content of folic acidPrevention of neural tube damage (spina bifida or open back in newborns)
Products sweetened with sugar alcoholsPrevention of dental caries
Products with antioxidantsPromotion of immune defense, cancer prevention

Too much of the good?

Nine out of ten Swiss women are convinced: nutrition is important for health. The fact that knowledge does not protect against mistakes is shown by the fact that we still eat too much and too fat. Modern nutrition science tries to lead people away from "adequate" to "optimal" nutrition: every woman and every man should eat food that meets their individual needs. Children and adolescents need enough vitamins for healthy growth and calcium to build up their bones, hard-bodied people need more calories daily than someone sitting in front of the computer for the entire week. High-performance athletes have to eat differently than older people.

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