Functional Foods: Diet Focused on Preventive Health

February 9, 2023 - Emily Newton

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It’s hard to know what foods are and aren’t healthy for humans — it seems to change daily. There may be a simple solution to eliminate second-guessing called functional foods. 

Finding ways to optimize food consumption and strengthen the body has been an exponentially growing priority of humans for countless years. Customers worldwide are more health conscious and want to see game-changing health claims on labels. This is how functional foods were born.

They promise health benefits like lowering blood pressure and even preventing cancer. Are functional foods, or nutraceuticals, a legitimate addition to an individual’s health plan or another pseudoscience marketing ploy?

Aren’t All Foods Functional?

Functional foods refer to foods that have additional health benefits or disease-preventing qualities. In the 1980s, Japan constructed a governmental process for functional foods called the Foods for Specific Health Use (FOSHU) to better their population. However, other nation-specific organizations like the United States FDA clearly state that functional foods are regulated but not explicitly defined by law.

For example, Japanese company Morinaga Milk Industry sells a functional food in the form of a probiotic supplement that some research proves improves cognitive function. Products like this do not just come in pills — they are marketed as yogurts, drinks and more. Functional foods are marketed to people of all ages, even if you are not currently in a condition where cognitive function is a concern. Functional foods are meant to be proactive, whereas pharmaceuticals are typically prescribed as a reactive response. 

Populations worldwide seek the help of functional foods to keep them out of hospitals as they age, allowing them to live longer.

Functional Foods, In Detail

Functional foods could refer to a broad category of foods, like fruits and vegetables, which provide benefits in their own right, to foods additionally fortified, maximizing beyond nutritional value with ingredients like vitamins, minerals, probiotics and fiber.

However, functional foods are separated into categories to explain the intention behind the food manipulation:

  • Conventional: These foods are conventionally grown and naturally have nutritional value and benefits. They are unmodified. These include fruits like kiwis, beverages like coffee, seeds like hemp and seafood like salmon, to name a few. 
  • Modified: These foods have been fortified, such as juices, eggs and pasta.
  • Medicinal: Foods like mushrooms, fatty fish and berries have proven medical usage.  
  • Dietary Use: These are foods with specific directives, like baby food and lactose-free foods. 

Buzz words surrounding functional foods include enriched or enhanced — these all define how the food is treated. Enriched foods have nutrients added to them that would never occur naturally. Enhanced means the food is given special attention to amplify certain aspects or genetically manipulate it. With genetic modification, farmers give customers crops that taste the same but help them feel better.

How Do Functional Foods Function?

Some nutrients are challenging to find naturally recurring, and food fortification can help provide variety and accessibility to diets. This will help many diets be more nutritionally balanced, decreasing the likelihood of nutrient-specific deficiencies. 

These are common additions to fortified foods, so when you eat your next bowl of oats or drink a glass of milk, you’ll know more about what the label is trying to tell you. These are known as bioactive components.

Probiotics and Prebiotics

These have versatility, ranging in foods from yogurt to fermented meats. Both can help the body absorb much-needed nutrients like iron and magnesium. Another area of study is improving immune function to help prevent bowel complications, mainly probiotics. 

Dietary Fiber

Added to products like grits and even meat, the addition of dietary fiber potentially lowers blood sugar and cholesterol. It also naturally occurs in bread, for example, helping gut health.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Your eyes, brain and heart will thank you by supporting it with fatty acids. Despite the name sounding damaging to your health, omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and added to pasta could also assist with:

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Preventing heart disease
  • Reducing the likelihood of stroke
  • Lowering triglycerides


Adding carotenoids like lycopene could support cardiovascular health and improve vision in foods like tomatoes and egg products. Researchers are studying its effects on reducing the risk of breast cancer.

How Does the World View Functional Foods?

The most important conversation surrounding functional foods is the lack of regulation behind them. Most resources and labels will have claims with conditional words like “may” or “could” when discussing potential health benefits. These words are here for a reason — they cannot assert a claim that cannot be fully validated. Because of this, to this day, Japan is still the only country with a separate designation for functional foods. 

But the United States Department of Agriculture has been hard at work since 2010, attempting to understand its value within a national scope with projects like developing ways to reduce food allergens. Because of organizations like the Agricultural Research Service can commercialize functional food developments like 100% fruit bars and lactose-reduced dairy products. 

Other countries are taking notice. Jordan trialed a program in 2002 to solve a high propensity for women and children to have iron-deficiency anemia. They tried to fix this issue by fortifying wheat flour not just with iron but also with vitamins and niacin. With more monitoring, they suspect strengthening bread could change health trends in women and children.

Over the last few decades, China has attempted to refine its language around functional foods, which they call health foods. At the end of 2021, they categorized over 15,000 foods as functional or health foods, around 30% claiming to benefit immune systems with other benefits, including sleep improvement and eliminating acne.

The Benefits of Functional Foods

More people are treating food like preventive medicine, giving it a new realm of responsibilities apart from satiating our hunger. As functional food research progresses, many health issues could be mitigated by amping up the value of each bite.

Though we analyzed functional foods today, keep an eye out for functional beverages — enhanced energy drinks and smart waters are on shelves for your mind and body, available now at your discretion.

Revolutionized is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commision. Learn more here.


Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist and the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized. She manages the sites publishing schedule, SEO optimization and content strategy. Emily enjoys writing and researching articles about how technology is changing every industry. When she isn't working, Emily enjoys playing video games or curling up with a good book.

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