FAQ: Functional Foods

What makes a food “functional?”
IFT’s Expert Report defines “functional foods” as foods and food components that provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition for an intended population. They are foods that provide essential nutrients often beyond quantities necessary for normal maintenance, growth, and development, and/ or other biologically active components that impart health benefits or desirable physiological effects.

What is a nutrient or qualifies as one?
The Expert Report defines nutrients as traditional vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids for which recommended intakes have been established. The definition also includes other components that include phytonutrients or bioactive substances present in foods for which a physical or physiological effect has been scientifically documented, or for which a substantial body of evidence exists for a plausible mechanism, but for which a recommended intake and function have not been definitively established.

What are some examples of functional foods?
Functional foods can take many forms. Some may be conventional foods with bioactive components now identified and linked to positive health outcomes. Some may be specifically designed to reduce disease risk for a certain group of people. Consumers can already select from a wide spectrum of foods that contain functional components either inherently, as with soy protein or cranberries, via fortification, as with folate-or phytosterol/stanol-fortified foods, or via dietary supplements, as with calcium.

Is the concept of functional foods new?
Food has always provided nutrients and energy necessary for survival. Food technology and improved nutrition have played critical roles in the dramatic increase in life expectancy over the past 200 years, but the impact of diet on health is much broader than basic nutrition. The term “functional food” has arisen as food and nutrition science have moved from identifying and correcting nutritional deficiencies to designing foods that promote optimal health and reduce the risk of disease.

Where can functional foods take us in the future?
In the future it may be possible to design foods and diets that regulate gene expression and thereby change metabolism in a way that reduces or prevents common diseases afflicting people having a specific genotype. Mass customization⎯the ability to provide nutrient plans and products based on the interaction of genetics and diet for groups and individuals may soon be scientifically possible.

Consumers might select functional foods and tailor their diets to meet changing health goals and different requirements at different ages. In the future, we may see functional foods for increased energy, mental alertness, and better sleep.

Are functional foods medicine?
No, functional foods are not medicine/drugs.

Traditionally, consumers and regulators have clearly distinguished between the use and purpose of foods fortified with vitamins and minerals versus drugs. Food has traditionally been viewed as a means of providing normal growth and development, and Federal policies have generally required diseases to be treated and managed through the use of drugs. A new self-care paradigm explained in the Expert Report recognizes that foods can provide health benefits that can coexist with traditional medical approaches to disease treatment.

Science has clearly demonstrated additional dietary roles in reducing disease risk, and consumers have learned that food has a greater impact on health than previously known. Functional foods fit into a continuum that ranges from health maintenance/promotion to disease treatment. There is a role for all aspects of this paradigm in our health care system. Functional foods should be integral components of established public health programs to reduce the risk of specific diseases.

What challenges face the advancement of functional foods?
Scientific, regulatory, and business frameworks must be in place to evaluate the research supporting functional foods for efficacy and safety, ensure effective regulatory oversight, communicate the research findings to consumers, and provide incentives that encourage further research and development of these novel food products.

IFT’s Expert Report recommends modifications to the existing efficacy and safety evaluation process to ensure a sound scientific underpinning for each proposed functional food and provision of clear information to consumers. Corresponding improvements in the regulatory oversight of new functional components also are proposed. These changes must be implemented now to protect consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply and to encourage the food industry to invest in the development of new functional foods. In addition, where existing terminology and regulatory frameworks are inadequate to address the full scope of benefits and opportunities for functional foods, the terminology and the frameworks must be modified.

Recognizing the tremendous health benefits offered by functional foods, the Institute of Food Technologists commissioned an expert panel to review the available scientific literature related to functional food development. The panel’s report is divided into nine sections: Definitions, Introduction, Food and Genes, Current Legal Standards, Scientific Standards, Policy Limitations, Bringing Functional Foods to Market, Role of Research, and Conclusions. Copies of the report are available at www.ift.org. Founded in 1939, the Institute of Food Technologists is an international not-for-profit scientific society for food science and technology.