Functional Foods

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The concept of functional foods has broadened the scope of nutrition, health promotion and disease prevention beyond traditional definitions.

The search for a better understanding of why a high consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with reduced incidence of several chronic diseases has led not only to a re-examination of the function of key vitamins, especially antioxidant vitamins, but also to an examination of the effects and metabolism of non-nutritive components, widely known as phytochemicals.

As a consequence of the attention given to functional foods, the West is giving renewed attention to the Eastern concept of food as medicine. A medical food in the US is defined as 'a food which is formulated to be consumed or administered enterally under the supervision of a physician and which is intended for the specific dietary management of a disease' (FDA, 1996). In Asia, the term 'medicinal food' simply means food used for medical purposes (Weng and Chen, 1996). In traditional Chinese medicine, food and medicine are of equal importance in preventing and treating disease. In the West, functional foods are distinctly not medical foods but are viewed loosely as having distinctly healthful properties beyond basic nutrition. The blurring of boundaries between Eastern and Western ideas about food and health is an indication of the need for more flexible approaches to diet and health, and it has the added benefit of focusing positively on well being.

Terms used to define functional foods

Confusion exists about how to describe this newly evolving area of food and food technology because numerous interchangeable or related terms have been suggested or published in the USA, Europe and Japan. These include terms such as pharmafoods, functional foods, chemopreventive agents and therapeutic foods (Goldberg, 1994). Other new terms, such as bioengineering, biotechnology and designer foods, relate to the technology available to develop phytochemical-rich foods (ADA, 1993).

Functional foods are defined in the US by the National Academy of Sciences as 'any modified food ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains' (Goldberg, 1994). In Japan, these foods are called 'foods for specified health use' and are foods where the components, which maintain body functions, have been processed and their efficacy and safety have been scientifically confirmed by clinical and animal trials (Okhuma, 1998). In Australia, they have been described as 'functional foods'. 'These foods are similar in appearance to conventional foods and are intended to be consumed as part of a usual diet, but have been modified to subserve physiological roles beyond the provision of simple nutrient requirements' (NFA, 1994). In Europe, the situation on 'functional foods' is still very much under discussion, without any concrete recommendations. Common to all of these terms is the assumption that these foods or components have a potential beneficial role in the prevention and treatment of disease.

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