First of all, it is important to point out that ALL foods have a physiological “function”. Put simply, proteins are important for muscle repair, fats and carbohydrates for energy, and vitamins and minerals for cell function.
In an effort to distinguish foods that have a potentially positive effect on health, beyond basic nutrition, from foods that do not offer this health benefit, Japan created a food class termed functional food in the 1980s. Here in the U.S., we do not have an official class for, nor have we adopted a legal definition for these foods. Nevertheless, functional foods still have a major presence in America, likely because people are becoming more aware of the impact that food has on their health.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as “a food that provides additional health benefits that may reduce disease risk and/or promote good health”.
Seems broad, right? That’s because it is. According to this definition, oatmeal is a functional food because it has soluble fiber which can help lower cholesterol, and calcium-fortified orange juice is a functional food because it contains calcium which promotes bone health.
While all foods contain nutrients that have a function in our bodies, functional foods are ones that have an additional benefit to our health. Typically, the ideal way for people to get their nutrients is through foods that naturally contain health-promoting ingredients… these foods are called “conventional” functional foods, and include foods such as whole grains, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts.
So now that we’ve covered the basics on what functional foods are, let’s dive into what’s trending in America. According to the IFT Insights article, the Top 10 Functional Foods Trends for 2014 include the following:
- Specialty Nutritionals: Consumers are seeking more nutrients, vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals including more fish/oil/omega-3s.
- Get Real: Consumers are looking for foods that are simple, real, natural, and free of artificial ingredients.
- Hispanic Health: Hispanics are the #1 users of energy drinks, sports beverages and 100% juice. Hispanics are 2x more likely than the general population to spend whatever it takes to look younger and are often the first to try a new health food, nutritional product or diet.
- The Protein Evolution: Consumers are seeking more protein to maintain healthy bones, strengthen immune systems, and build muscle strength while maintaining energy throughout the day.
- Kid-Specific: Moms are looking for a wider range of healthy, convenient, kid-friendly foods and drinks with nutrient and calorie levels specific to kids.
- Pharma Foods: The majority believe functional foods can help prevent or delay the onset of heart disease, hypertension, osteoporosis and Type 2 Diabetes
- Alternatives: Many are seeking alternatives such as meatless meals for dinner on occasion; eggs are the most popular alternative followed by beans/lentils/legumes. Also, dairy-free milks including soy, rice and almond milk are increasing in popularity.
- Performance Nutrition: Sports nutrition category targets not only athletes and body builders but recreational sports participants, casual athletes and gym exercisers.
- Weighing In: Consumers are avoiding the deprivation-style weight loss campaigns and instead simply eat healthier while adding specific real food components and nutrients to their diet.
- Gen Zen: Today’s millennials between the ages of 14 and 33 view their food choices as healthier, more expensive, more natural and organic, less processed, better tasting and fresh. Millennials are also the most likely to believe that functional foods can be used in place of some medicines to relieve tiredness, lack of energy, retain mental sharpness with aging, reduce stress, and improve eye health.
Can you relate to any of these functional food trends? My guess is that many of us are already buying into the functional food trends without even realizing! Health is important, and so is the food we eat. Choosing functional foods, especially the “conventional” functional foods that naturally contain health-promoting nutrients, is a great way to maximize your nutrition and live a healthy life.
1. Denny, S. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. What are functional foods? April 2013. Accessed May 29, 2014. Available at http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442472528.
2. Sloan, E. Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) website. The Top 10 Functional Foods Trends. Food Technology. 2014:64(4). Accessed April 29, 2014. Available at http://www.ift.org/food-technology/past-issues/2014/april/features/toptentrends.aspx?page=viewall