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What's “functional” about functional foods?


Nutrition and health are trending in the food world. As a dietitian, this should make me happy; however, the more people search for healthier foods, the more they find increasingly confusing new marketing messages and products to navigate. Where nutrition science and product marketing collide, we see functional foods.

Food is, by its definition, inherently nutritious. So why are we dressing them up? According to a 2008 policy paper published by Health Canada:

A functional food is similar in appearance to, or may be, a conventional food, is consumed as part of a usual diet, and is demonstrated to have physiological benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions.

Practically speaking, functional foods differ from regular foods in a few key ways:

  1. Functional foods often contain an ingredient that is not normally found in that food for the purpose of increasing nutrition and providing a health benefit. A good example of this is calcium-fortified orange juice or omega 3 enhanced eggs.

  2. Functional foods are heavily marketed to the public (and to health professionals) as being more healthful that their non-functional competitors. TV hosts such as Dr. Oz regularly promote products and the resulting demand can cause store shelves to be wiped clean.

  3. Functional foods come with an increased cost at the till. A good example is Becel ProActiv Margarine with added plant sterols. When I did a price check, a 227g tub of Becel ProActiv retailed for more than a 454g tub of Becel Original.

As a retailer, it is important to keep up with the nutrition trends; consumers are looking for functional foods. Whether or not these products live up to their promises remains to be seen. Some products, like omega 3 eggs or calcium-fortified orange juice, are a savvy option while others, such as omega 3 yogurt or immune boosting cookies, are less so. In these products, validating factors include whether the food is a healthy choice overall and whether it delivers enough of an active ingredient in a typical serving size. Many of these new choices don’t stand up to the litmus test; the ones that do will find their way into shopping baskets for years to come.

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