You may not realise it, but chances are you are already eating functional foods – everyday products on our supermarket shelves that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. But do we really need them? Dietitian Kate Marsh finds out.
What are functional foods?
These are foods that have been modified to provide extra health benefits beyond traditional nutrients such as protein, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals. An example might be yoghurt with added omega-3 or cereal with added folate.
According to Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), “They are similar in appearance to conventional foods and intended to be consumed as part of a normal diet, but modified to serve physiological roles beyond the provision of simple nutrient requirements”.
So what’s being added to our food?
Common fortifications include iron, folate, calcium and vitamin C, but we are now seeing a range of additional fortifications. These include the following:
Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They have been found to have many health benefits, particularly when it comes to heart health and reducing inflammation. They are also important for brain and eye development in unborn and newborn babies.
Manufacturers are now adding omega-3 fats to a range of other foods, including bread, yoghurt, milk and eggs.
The source of omega-3 in most of these products is the long-chain omega-3 fat DHA taken from algae, making them a good option for increasing intake of these important fats for vegetarians and those who don’t eat fish or seafood.
Verdict: Unfortunately, many of us don’t get enough omega-3 fats, largely due to the limited range of foods they are found in – mostly fish and seafood – so choosing omega-3 fortified foods may be beneficial. Good examples include Vaalia yoghurts (Vaalia My First yoghurt, Vaalia for Toddlers and Vaalia Low Fat Omega-3), Dairy Farmers Enrich yoghurt, Pura Kids milk and Farm Pride Omega-3 eggs.
Plant sterols are substances found naturally in plant foods (including nuts, seeds, legumes and grains), which can help to reduce cholesterol levels by blocking its absorption. The amount needed to significantly lower cholesterol is difficult to get naturally from foods, so food manufacturers are now adding concentrated amounts to food.
Initially they were approved only for use in margarines, but have now been added to milk. Pura Heart Active Milk and Devondale Reduce both have 0.8g of plant sterols per glass, the same amount as a 10g serve of plant sterol margarine (such as Logicol, Flora pro-activ, Devondale Reduce Dairy Spread and Nuttelex Pulse).
Verdict: For a cholesterol-lowering effect, you need around 2–3g of plant sterols per day – that’s three to four serves of these products each day – so if you have high cholesterol, you may find it worthwhile to buy both the milk and the spread.
Iodine is a mineral our thyroid gland uses to make thyroid hormones. It is naturally found in seawater, so all seafood contains iodine. (Although sea salt is not a good source of iodine.)
If you don’t get enough – the recommended dietary intake (RDI) of iodine for adults is 150µg – this can lead to hypothyroidism, a condition where your metabolism slows down, resulting in symptoms such as weight gain, fatigue and feeling cold.
An adequate iodine intake is particularly important during pregnancy, breastfeeding and for young children as it plays an important part in brain development. Unfortunately, FSANZ’s latest food survey found that 43 per cent of Australians don’t get enough iodine, while 70 per cent of women of child-bearing age and about 10 per cent of kids between the ages of two and three are iodine-deficient. It is for this reason that bread manufacturers must, by law, use iodised salt in their bread beginning October 2009 (organic breads are excluded).
Nestlé has also recently brought out Milo B-Smart which contains 32µg of iodine per 20g serve with one serving mixed with 200ml of skim milk containing 60µg of iodine (40 per cent of the RDI for adults).
Verdict: For an everyday source of iodine, choose iodine-fortified bread from October. Milo B-Smart also makes a great treat for kids.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin produced in your skin during exposure to UV radiation from the sun. It has long been known to play an important role in bone health, helping calcium to be absorbed into the bones.
More recent research has found that its role is far more widespread than just bone health – in fact low vitamin D has been associated with an increased risk of colon cancer, schizophrenia, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and heart disease.
Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is on the rise, as we all spend more time indoors and trying to protect our skin from the damaging effects of the sun. While some vitamin D can be obtained from food, there are only a few naturally occurring sources, including fatty fish (such as salmon and sardines), eggs, milk, cheese and butter.
Verdict: It is recommended that most children and adults consume 5–10µg of vitamin D per day, so functional foods can supply useful amounts, particularly if you don’t eat fatty fish. Vitamin D has been added to margarines for some time but it can now be found in milk (Anlene has 5µg per 250ml glass, PhysiCAL has 1.25µg), soy milk (Soy Life has 1.25µg, Vitasoy Calci-Plus has 5µg per glass) and even milk flavourings – the new Nesquik Plus contains 2.4µg per serve. These products are of particular distinction as it’s difficult to fortify foods with vitamin D.
Dietary fibre is important for digestive health, heart health, controlling blood-glucose levels and helping us feel full for longer, making it useful for weight management. Fibre is found naturally in plant foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes but is now commonly added to foods such as breads, cereals and even pastas.
Verdict: Despite the well-known benefits, dietary surveys show that most of us don’t eat the recommended 25–30g per day, so fibre-fortified foods are a great addition to the trolley. There are plenty of examples, but the latest to hit the shelves is Orgran Essential Fibre pasta. Made with brown rice flour, resistant starch, rice bran and psyllium husks, it contains 16 per cent fibre or 10g per serve; significantly more than regular pasta and a great choice for people with coeliac disease or gluten-intolerance, who often find it harder to meet their fibre needs.
What about ‘vitamin’ water?
While their labels promote a variety of health benefits, ‘nutrient’ or ‘vitamin’ waters are really just water with added sugar, flavours and selected vitamins or minerals. Most have around 5 to 7 per cent added sugar which is about half that of a soft drink, and their large size (most come in 500ml bottles) means that you will be consuming at least 25g (around 6 teaspoons) of sugar with each bottle. While they may appear to be a healthier option than other sweet drinks, you are better sticking to water and getting your vitamins from fresh fruit and vegetables, without the added sugar, colours and flavours. For example, Coca-Cola’s Glacéau Vitaminwater contains 33mg of vitamin C and 42µg of folate, but comes along with 27g of added sugar. A medium orange gives you twice the vitamin C and a similar dose of folate with only 10g of natural sugar and less than half the kJs.