What are Functional Foods?

Have you ever wondered what people mean when discussing functional foods and nutraceuticals? Functional foods are food items or ingredients that exhibit additional health benefits to the body beyond simply supplying it with energy or fuel for functioning.

Nutraceuticals are also functional foods as they are derived from food items but used in a medicinal manner in the form tablets, capsules or liquid to be of benefit to the body. Nutraceuticals are a group of products that are more than just food but are less than pharmaceuticals.

Nutraceuticals is an umbrella term commonly used to describe any product derived from food sources that has additional health benefits over and above the foods basic nutritional value.

Think about the word – “nutrient” (a nourishing food component) and “pharmaceutical” IE: more than food but not a medical drug. In many countries nutraceuticals are taken as part of dietary supplements.

The philosophy behind nutraceuticals is to focus on prevention. Combining a food first approach with supplementation to support healthy outcomes. As the Greek physician Hippocrates (known as the father of medicine) aptly stated “let food be your medicine” and evidence strongly supports his thinking!

Nutraceuticals as a term first originated in Japan in the 1980’s where nutraceuticals were developed to improve better health in the general population.

These nutritious foods health benefits extend beyond the nutritional value. Some contain supplements and additional ingredients to improve overall health.

They have multiple Health Benefits which include:

  1. PROTECT against disease
    1. Many are rich in anti-oxidants – These compounds help to scavenge and neutralise harmful molecules known as free radicals that lead oxidative stress – they help prevent cell damage and the development of chronic conditions (1)
  2. PREVENT nutrition deficiencies
    1. Which may be caused by an inappropriate diet
    2. Possible malabsorption due to chronic conditions
  3. PROMOTES growth and development
    1. Supplying the body with the correct nutrients in the correct amounts

You get two types of functional foods or nutraceuticals (2)


    These are natural, whole food ingredients rich in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and heart healthy fats. Examples of nutrient rich ingredients are: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, seafood, fermented food, herbs and spices and some beverages.If you consider oats as an example, oats are shown to reduce inflammation, enhance immune function and improve heart health. Oats also contains Beta-Glucan which is able to lower total cholesterol and reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. (3)
    These are foods that are fortified with additional nutrients such as minerals, vitamins, fibre and probiotics. These foods that are fortified can include juices, dairy products, milk alternatives, grains, cereals and eggs. (4)

Remember wholefood ingredients should make up 80-90% of your daily consumption. Stay away from sugar-containing products, refined carbohydrates and highly processed foods!

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4644575/
  2. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/healthy-eating/functional-foods
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5618555/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK208880/