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Dear Dietitian – What are functional foods?

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PICT Leanne McCrate Dear Dietitian
Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, CNSC

Dear Dietitian,

Over the last several months, I’ve heard more about functional foods and the health benefits they provide. Is there science to back these health claims, or is this just crafty marketing?


Dear Jerry,

A functional food is one that provides a benefit beyond that of nutrition. Some of us drink a strong cup of coffee every morning to help us wake up. Others eat prunes to assist with regularity. Still others sip a cup of chamomile tea to help them sleep at night. In these examples, food and drinks provide a purpose beyond providing calories and nutrients.

To some degree, all foods are functional. While there is no legal definition of functional food, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) defines them 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 regularly at effective levels’ (1).

The term ‘functional food’ is considered to be marketing by some, while others believe these foods make us feel better and help prevent diseases. When it comes to making health claims, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food manufacturers can place on packaging labels.  That is why you will see claims that state “may help reduce cholesterol when used as part of a diet that is low in saturated fats and low in cholesterol.”

Try one of these functional foods.

  1. Fatty fish. You’ve probably heard of the omega-3-fatty acids found in salmon, tuna, trout, sardines, and mackerel. Health experts recommend two servings per week to possibly reduce the risk of heart disease.
  2. Nuts are a great source of fiber and monounsaturated fats that may promote heart health. Try one ounce of your favorite nuts mixed with a few raisins for a healthy afternoon snack.
  3. Leafy greens contain folate for your heart as well as the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin that function to protect the eye from damaging sunlight. These nutrients are plentiful in kale, spinach, and turnip greens.
  4. Berries contain phytochemicals known as anthocyanin pigments, which give them color. Anthocyanins have been found to have anti-cancer effects in laboratories and animal studies. However, this does not mean the same thing occurs in the human body. More studies are needed to provide a meaningful link.  Whether you prefer strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, or raspberries, these colorful fruits are not only pleasing to the palate, they may promote better health.
  5. Orange juice with added calcium is an example of a fortified functional food. Of course, calcium is not found naturally in orange juice, and adding it promotes strong bones.

When it comes to sizing up functional foods, a little common sense goes a long way. In some cases, it is difficult to provide a recommendation of how much of a particular food to consume for health benefits simply because it has yet to be hammered out in the research. As part of a varied diet and a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and good mental health, functional foods may help you live a healthier life.

Until next time, be healthy!

Dear Dietitian


  1. Crowe, Kristi, Francis, Coni. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Functional Foods. J of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2013; 113 (8): 1096-1103.

Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, CNSC, aka Dear Dietitian, is based in Missouri. Her mission is to educate consumers on sound, scientifically-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her today at Dear Dietitian does not endorse any products, health programs, or diet plans.