A growing trend in the food industry these days is the concept of functional foods. These actually refer to the foods or ingredients in the manufactured foodstuffs that not only supply the proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins or minerals needed by the body but also have other health benefits. A typical example of functional foods is probiotics which supposedly contain live "good" bacteria that keep the intestines and the stomach healthy. Whole foods that belong to this category include soy, oats and fruits and vegetables just to name a few. Grains with added fiber, beverages with herbal preparations and spreads with stanol esters are other examples.
By providing health benefits over and above basic nutrition because of its physiologically active components, these foods are touted to prevent disease and enhance overall health and wellness. There are four categories of functional foods as defined by the US Food and Drug Administration. These are: whole foods, enriched foods, fortified foods and enhanced foods. The health benefits of these foods are either labeled with structure and function claims describing only the effects the food has on normal body functions or they can also be labeled as having the ability to reduce risk of disease. For example, calcium-fortified juices claim to reduce the risk of osteoporosis in their food labels while beverages with antioxidants are simply labeled as contributing to overall health.
Proponents and supporters of the idea that foods can be functional point to the benefits derived from these foods. For them, these prevent disease and enhance overall health. However, there are questionable health effects that other developed functional foods possess that make a lot of people wary about them. Drinks with herbal preparations are a prime example. There are herbs that do not give its desired effect with the limited quantities they have in these power drinks. Another food that is subject to a lot of controversy regarding its positive health benefits is soy. Others tout it as the wonder food. However, soy is one of the most allergenic foods around and is also potentially dangerous to those with thyroid problems. Whey protein is another one that also adds to the confusion of the beneficial effects of these foods. It has been touted as one of the best drinks for those seeking to gain muscle and is in fact one of the most popular workout drinks for weight lifters or those undergoing strength training. However, over-consumption of whey is also blamed for some liver and kidney issues experienced by avid drinkers.
As the debate rages, it must be borne in mind that all foods are functional to a certain extent. Instead of focusing on taking more of a particular whole or enriched food, the focus should be on obtaining all the nutrients the body needs through a well-balanced diet represented by all the food groups. For your diet to be truly functional, you need to strike a healthy balance of all the foods you eat. Whether the foods are functional or simply natural doesn't matter. What is important is eating them in moderation to derive the most healthful benefits.