Functional Foods: What Are The Benefits?

Introduction

Consumers are showing a growing interest in the relationship between diet and health. With this growing interest is a growing demand for information about the benefits and the risks of food choices. Greater than 95 percent of the population believes that food possesses the potential to improve health, and that food, quality of life, and disease risk management are intimately associated. Greater interest in preventive health, health education, rising healthcare costs, the aging of the population, and frequently changing labeling regulations contribute to the interest and demand, fueling a growing industry: functional foods.

Definition

As defined by the Institute of Food Technologists, functional foods are those which are understood to be foods common to the human diet that provide essential nutrients beyond what is necessary for normal maintenance, growth, and development. In addition, functional foods are shown to benefit overall health and well-being, beyond basic nutritional functions. They may help prevent, or treat, a disease or pathologic condition.

A functional food component is an ingredient that, when added to food, improves physical or mental performance, or, like functional foods, helps prevent or treat a disease or unfavorable condition. As the functional components of foods are identified and appreciated, they are added to conventional foods to form new foods which enhance overall health.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the claims that manufacturers can make about nutrient content, and the effects on disease, health, or body functions, under the United States Dietary Supplement Health Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. The DSHEA recognizes the growing importance of nutrition and dietary supplements, and the benefits of health promotion and disease prevention. These include chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis [not all-inclusive]. The language defined supplements as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids and others.

The DSHEA 1994 stated that the dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed. The FDA was responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reached the market. Generally, manufacturers did not need to register their products with the FDA, nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements. Manufacturers were required to make sure that product label information was truthful and not misleading.

The Dietary Supplement Safety Act of 2010 amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to more effectively regulate dietary supplements that may pose safety risks unknown to consumers. It requires manufacturers to submit research, including evidence of safety, for approval before a new substance or formulation is marketed to the public.

More information about the regulation of functional foods is available at http://www.fda.gov; enter “functional food” in the search engine.

Dietary fiber

Different dietary fibers are classified as soluble (can be dissolved in liquid) or insoluble (cannot be dissolved in liquid). Fiber is resistant to digestion by human gastrointestinal (GI) enzymes. Some types of fiber are cellulose, pectin, and lignin. Some foods with soluble fiber include:

• beans
• oats
• legumes
• psyllium
• barley
• prunes

Oat bran, a soluble fiber, was the first functional component of food approved to claim a health-enhancing effect – cardiovascular risk management. The claim, authorized to appear on packaging, encouraged consuming 25 grams of fiber per day from oat-containing foods, to reduce the risk of heart disease. Numerous studies show that an intake of dietary fiber of greater than 25 grams per day is associated with a significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease. The fiber lowers total cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), so-called “bad cholesterol.” The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that men who consumed greater than 27 grams of fiber per day, or 10 grams of fiber per day greater than the general population of men, had a relative risk of dying from coronary artery disease of 0.83, a statistically significant decrease. Soluble fiber also lowers LDL cholesterol by altering glucose and cholesterol metabolism, reducing absorption of fat and cholesterol in the GI tract.

Organisms which are colonized in the colon cause fermentation of undigested fiber, providing fuel for the GI mucosa. The effect is associated with lowering serum cholesterol and decreasing the risk of colon and breast cancer. Undigested fiber also increases both fecal dry weight and water absorption, speeding up the passage of stool (transit time). There is less exposure of the GI mucosa to both nutrient absorption and potentially carcinogenic compounds.

Probiotics and prebiotics

The GI tract is colonized with an enormous number of different types of microorganisms, somewhat affected by the food consumed.

Probiotics are living organisms, which in sufficient numbers have beneficial effects on the population of bacteria in the GI tract. They may be used to lower cholesterol, protect against gastrointestinal diseases, and enhance immune function. Some examples of probiotics are yogurt, kefir, fermented vegetables and buttermilk.

Prebiotics are indigestible food ingredients which stimulate growth or activity of one or more types of bacteria in the colon. Soy oligosaccharides (polymers of sugar molecules) are one type of prebiotic.

Fermented milk, as a probiotic, increases the bacterial count in the colon. It decreases circulating cholesterol by inhibiting production of cholesterol in the liver, or redistributing cholesterol from blood to the liver.

Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, probiotic microorganisms found in yogurt, are used to treat gastrointestinal disease. They prevent disease-causing microorganisms from populating the colon. Probiotics also strengthen the immune barrier, and some may protect the colon from carcinogens. Some compounds produced during fermentation may enhance reproduction of normal mucosal cells, and inhibit proliferation of abnormal mucosal cells.

It was previously thought that it was the bacteria generating the probiotic effects, but it has also been demonstrated that products produced by the bacteria may be the active agents.

Plant sterols and stanols

Plant sterols and stanols are functional food components found in yogurt, or spreads used as substitutes for butter. They are chemically similar to cholesterol. These compounds act in the small bowel, lowering cholesterol by competitively inhibiting its receptors. Sterols and stanols may also inhibit some precursors of colon cancer cells. In addition, they may improve urinary symptoms and flow in patients with benign prostatic hypertrophy.

Fish oil – fatty acids

The benefits of fatty acids found in fish are receiving a lot of attention for their role in the risk and management of cardiovascular disease. They are showing benefits to health in several common diseases.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been known for two decades to be important in the health of the nervous system, especially during development. A 6-year-old girl was maintained on total parenteral nutrition (TPN) for five months. The parenteral solution contained an abundance of linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid but low in linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. She developed migrating numbness and paresthesias in her extremities, weakness, inability to walk, pain in her legs, and blurred vision. When linolenic acid was restored in her diet her symptoms disappeared.

Omega-3 rich foods are salmon, herring, anchovies, sablefish, whitefish, tuna, and others. Some eggs are enriched with omega-3 fatty acids.

Common vegetable oils have a higher concentration of omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, although flaxseed, canola, mustard, walnut, and soybean vegetable oils are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The lowering of serum cholesterol is attributed to lowered triglycerides levels, antithrombotic, anti-inflammatory, and antihypertensive effects of the omega-3 fatty acids.

Several clinical studies have shown that intake of fish oil reduces serum triglyceride levels in both normal individuals and in people with hypertriglyceridemia, lowers the frequency of arrhythmia and the progress of atherosclerosis. In a study of post-menopausal women, the incidence of coronary artery disease was reduced along a continuum with intake of fish, from once monthly, up to three times monthly, once a week, 2-4 times per week, and five times per week. The incidence of ischemic stroke also decreased in a continuum with increased fish intake.

According to a recent meta-analysis of 20 randomized clinical trials (RCTs) performed on about 68,000 subjects, omega-3 supplements did not reduce overall mortality rate or mortality rate caused by cardiovascular disease, the risk of myocardial infarction, or stroke. However, several limitations have been pointed out in the results of those studies.

It’s become apparent that omega-3 fatty acids are important in modulating risk of several common diseases. In the United States, the FDA has concluded that, although omega-3 fatty acids have been shown effective in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, the evidence is not conclusive.

Soy Protein

Health claims are allowed on the packaging of soy protein products, under the DSHEA. The FDA concluded that soy protein, consumed with a diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. It’s believed that part of the amino acid profile differs from that of the amino acid profile in animal protein. The soy protein amino acids lead to the lowering of circulating LDL cholesterol.

Glucosamine

Glucosamine is an amino monosaccharide synthesized from glucose in the body and is a precursor for the synthesis of glycosaminoglycans and glycoproteins. Glucosamine is naturally found in all human tissues but is found at higher concentrations in connective tissues, and at highest concentration in joint cartilage. Glucosamine is made using adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and the amine from glutamine. However, most glucosamine supplements are made from crustacean sources containing sulfate. After oral administration of glucosamine sulfate, 90% is absorbed and helps to build articular cartilage.

Glucosamine supplements exist in a number of different forms including sulfate, hydrochloride, N-acetyl-glucosamine, and chloral hydrate salt It remains controversial which form is most effective. Glucosamine sulfate has shown effective clinical results to date, but many clinical studies have reported ineffectiveness of glucosamine sold in other forms. Even though the potential mechanisms of glucosamine synthesis are known to be a direct stimulation of chondrocytes, incorporation of sulfur into cartilage, and protection against degradative processes, but the exact mechanism is unclear. In addition, the effect of glucosamine in the treatment of osteoarthritis remains controversial.

Conclusion

Everything you eat over time matters. The right variety of foods can make you healthier now and long-term. The future roles of functional foods depend on public acceptance. The public must be convinced clearly and unequivocally that the health benefits are authentic. Therefore, the industry must be rigorously honest in their health claims, without exaggerating the truth. While these foods, especially those modified with the addition of functional food components, are often more expensive than foods which have not been enhanced, it appears the public is willing to pay for the health benefits.

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References: All indexed by the National Library of Medicine, the National Institutes of Medicine

1. Institute of Food Technologists, 525 West Van Buren St. Ste 1000, Chicago, IL 60607 http://www.ift.org/Knowledge-Center/Focus-areas./Food-Health-and-Nutrition/Functional-Foods/IFT-Contributions-to-Functional-Foods.aspx

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11. Stone NJ. Fish consumption, fish oil, lipids, and coronary heart disease. Circulation. 1996;94:2337–2340.

12. Hu FB, Bronner L, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Rexrode KM, Albert CM, et al. Fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake and risk of coronary heart disease in women. JAMA. 2002;287:1815–1821.

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14. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994; Public Law 103-417; 103rd Congress https://ods.od.nih.gov/About/DHEA_wording.aspx

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