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Form and function

Just what are functional foods, how can they promote health and how can we ensure we eat enough of them?

Not all of us will know what functional foods are, but any food that has added probiotics, plant stanols or sterols, omega-3 fatty acids or folic acids are considered functional foods. These may be spreads, bread, milk, breakfast cereals or eggs.

“The International Life Sciences Institute defines functional foods as ‘foods that, by virtue of the presence of physiologically-active components, provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition’,” says nutritional therapist Sinéad Dundon of The Tummy Tamer. “Functional foods are regarded as high in benefits for human health.”

“The big plus of functional foods lies in their extra range of nutrients, phytochemicals, fatty acids, useful bacteria and so on which gives added value and makes them even more desirable than eating them for their taste alone,” says Jill Bell of health store Well and Good in Midleton, co Cork. “Take oats as an example. You can buy any number of breakfast cereals dosed with sugar and salt and labelled as having added vitamins. These are fortified foods, but they are not naturally functional. Compare these with oats – high in soluble fibre which is good for the bowel, rich in beta glucan which can help reduce LDL cholesterol, and because they are slow to digest they make us feel fuller for longer and can help reduce blood sugar levels. They are also naturally high in B vitamins as well as iron, magnesium and other minerals, and they also taste good in muesli or as porridge, and don’t cost the earth.”

How do functional foods differ from superfoods?

“There is some debate about the label ‘superfoods’,” says Jill Bell. “That term is often just a marketing label applied to foods which aren’t a basic part of our diets, which have useful health properties, but tend to be imported from faraway places with the added cost of air miles. Personally I would definitely class oats as a superfood in its true meaning, along with apple cider vinegar, kale, avocadoes, lentils, walnuts, green tea, kefir, sprouted wheat flour and a myriad of other foods available in health food shops.”

“Functional foods can overlap with superfoods as certain foods can be powerhouses of complex nutrients,” says Sinéad Dundon. “Superfoods can contain high levels of phytochemicals from plants traditionally known for their disease-fighting properties. Functional foods can be modified or fortified artificially as there are few guidelines regulating the area. Some yogurt-based drinks are functional foods for lowering cholesterol levels, but they don’t have the extra benefits provided by kefir.”

Popular everyday functional foods

“I see functional foods as being part of the regular diet of anyone who cooks from fresh and avoids processed and sugary foods, so it doesn’t need to be a special effort,” says Jill Bell. “Cacao is a good example, with its high antioxidant content and great flavour. A more recent addition is ready-made bone broth which is popular for its labour-saving properties. Different forms of sauerkraut and kimchi, kombucha and kefir, rich in readily absorbed bacteria for gut health, have become very popular. Fermented foods will continue to be a mainstay in our chillers. Another fermented product which is a true golden oldie is raw unfiltered organic apple cider vinegar. Its alkalising and antibacterial properties can help with digestive issues, sore throats, skin problems and more.”

Foods with function

“I have a number of favourite functional foods,” says Sinéad Dundon. “Sea vegetables such as kelp, nori, carrageen and dilisk provide iodine, B12 and calcium in concentrated quantities. Activated nuts and seeds are good because soaking foods removes phytic acid which blocks digestion and tricks the seeds and nuts into starting to germinate and grow. This newly developing plant form provides bio-available nutrients as they are unlocked from the seed. Kefir made using raw unpasteurised cows or goats milk or almond and rice milk or even water; can transform the raw ingredients into a drink with huge probiotic benefits. Kombucha has been used for hundreds of years with many health claims. Chocolate with a high cocoa content has huge health and wellbeing benefits far beyond its nutritional profile.”

Top 10 functional foods

1. Apple cider vinegar – has alkalising and antibacterial properties.

2. Fatty fish – salmon, tuna, trout – contain omega-3 fatty acids which work to reduce coronary heart disease.

3. Green tea – antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties due to polyphenol content.

4. Kefir – in drink form, good for stimulating the immune system and lowering cholesterol.

5. Leafy green vegetables – such as kale, spinach, broccoli. Packed with phytochemicals such as carotenoids.

6. Live native bacteria, or probiotics – often found in yogurts. Support gastrointestinal health and may boost immunity.

7. Nuts – contain monounsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E. May reduce the risk of heart disease.

8. Oats – in porridge, granola, oat bread. Help to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.

9. Omega-3 eggs – hens given feed containing omega-3. Help lower cholesterol.

10. Tomatoes – and tomato products. Antioxidants in tomatoes make them great for reducing cholesterol and inflammation and improving digestion.

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