Functional food is any health food that claims to have health promoting or disease preventing properties in addition to the present supply of nutrients. Functional food is a fast emerging field in food science as it is gaining recognition with health conscious customers. The term was first used in Japan in the 1980s.
The Food Industry
The functional food industry consists of food, beverage and supplement sectors and is estimated to be worth about $176.4 billion by 2013. This growth is due to industrial innovation, development of new products and increasing demand from health conscious customers. Some consumers are still skeptical as the benefits associated with these products are difficult to detect.
Generally, functional food includes processed food fortified with health promoting nutrients. Fermented goods with live cultures are called probiotic, like yoghurt. Functional beverages are non-alcoholic ready to drink products that contain non-traditional ingredients like herbs, vitamins and amino acids. They promote heart health, immunity and energy boosting. Functional beverages are much in demand as they are easy to carry around making them convenient in addition to promoting health.
Functional foods usually have labels printed on the covers explaining their health benefits. Certain cereals claim to have extra fiber, stating that increased amounts of fiber in meals can reduce risk of certain types of cancer. Some functional foods also announce that their products are not FDA approved and are not intended to diagnose or treat any diseases! Manufactures of oat meals claim that oat cereals and oat bran can reduce cholesterol, ultimately lowering chances of heart disease.
Experts are concerned about the rise in consumption of ready to drink functional beverages and other foods. Most of the drinks contain high levels of sugar and caffeine and large consumption of these products could lead to sever health problems. Another cause of concern is that some products contain ingredients that have not been sufficiently studied for in terms of dosage, benefits and safety. Frequent consumers of such products are at the risk of diabetes and cancer as most of these products contain too much sugar and caffeine in order to give instant energy.
Several research institutes have dedicated teams that thoroughly test these products for their benefits and also research newer methods to keep functional food safe and healthy. A research team in New Zealand is working on ‘mood foods’. These are components used in functional foods and beverages to enhance mental performance, cognitive ability and brain function. The largest testing centre in Europe provides customer-related research and consultancy services to the food and beverage industry. UN and other government agencies in the UK consult with this institute on not just scientific aspects of food, but also social and cultural aspects. This research centre also focuses on female nutrition, aging and dietary interventions.