Cathy Moore column: exploring ‘functional’ food –

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Food marketers have devised ways to attach terms and phrases that don’t really add up to much other than the public spending more money to buy it.

There’s an effort by professional organizations to protect the public from false claims. The term functional foods is considered a marketing term by many; there is no consistent definition that is recognized globally by regulatory bodies.

When it comes to food, all food is functional as it provides energy and nutrients needed to sustain life.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foods defined functional foods as whole foods along with fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels. Quite a mouthful — no pun intended.

According to the European Commission, a food that beneficially affects one or more target functions in the body, beyond adequate nutritional effects, in a way that is relevant to either an improved state of health and well-being and/or reduction of risk of disease is considered a functional food. It is part of a normal food pattern. It is not a pill, a capsule or any form of dietary supplement.

However you define it, studies investigating the development of functional foods have shown that the interactions between nutrients and non-nutrients within the food can have interesting properties. Food interactions can be synergistic, additive or neutralizing in nature. For example, vitamin C regenerates vitamin E and enhances the antioxidant effect of carotenoid compounds (the orange color in carrots that is so healthful for us).

Likewise, studies have shown that flavonoids, a subcategory of healthy phenolic phytochemicals, behave synergistically with vitamin E to prevent low-density lipoprotein oxidation.

Often, we know foods are related to good outcomes but we do not know the exact way that happens. Sometimes, the relationship exists but not in all studies. Scientists grade the research to determine how strong the evidence is.

Scientists don’t know for sure if folic acid, vitamins B-6 and B-12 themselves fall in the category of a functional food. As part of a well-balanced diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol, folic acid and vitamins B-6 and B-12 may reduce the risk of vascular disease. However, the Food and Drug Administration evaluated the above claim and found that, while it is known that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol reduce the risk of heart disease and other vascular diseases, the evidence in support of the above claim is inconclusive.

Scientific evidence also suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts such as chopped almonds as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. Research shows that consuming fatty acids in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in fish, foods and supplements supports but does not conclusively prove a reduction in the risk for CHD.

We know that eating these healthy foods likely is good for you but can’t prove it. So, I will not take my chances and I will enjoy these foods while the scientists work to figure it out.

Cathy Moore is a registered dietitian with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County.


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