Over the last few years, there has been an increased interest in foods that do more than just provide basic nutrition. These foods are often referred to as functional foods; a term, first introduced in Japan in the 1980s. Functional foods have sometimes been defined as “any food or food ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains.”
Many, although not all, functional foods are whole foods that provide a rich source of fiber to the diet. As well as providing other health benefits, these foods can in turn support good gut health. Given the growing scientific evidence of the importance of the gut microbiome (the collection of microorganisms and symbiotic bacteria that support our overall gut health), it becomes even more critical to be aware of the impact of our diet on digestive function and wellness.
It is important to note that in the U.S. there is no comprehensive regulation regarding the use of the term functional food. However, it appears that many consumers specifically do not include fortified foods. Those are foods that have added nutrients that are not part of their original structure such as calcium-fortified orange juice.
Examples of Functional Foods
Commonly known examples of functional foods include:
- Oats. Shown to reduce cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease, oats are also a good source of manganese
- Tomatoes. Rich in lycopene, betacarotene, and vitamin C, studies indicate that tomatoes may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. They have also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and to support bone health
- Cranberries. These may help reduce the risk of urinary tract infections while providing a rich source of antioxidants
- Broccoli. Studies show that a diet high in cruciferous vegetables is linked to a reduced risk for cancer
- Lacto-fermented foods. Those foods that have been made by allowing natural bacteria and yeast to feed on the sugars and starches in foods. This process creates enzymes, increases nutritional content, and adds beneficial probiotics to the foods.
Types of Fermented Foods
Found in many cultures around the world, fermented foods are a healthy way to support overall gut health. Examples of different types of lacto-fermented foods include:
- Traditionally fermented sauerkraut (not the typical canned stuff found on grocery store shelves) found in Germany.
- Kimchi. A spicy fermented cabbage dish from Korea.
- Tempeh. Soybeans that have been naturally fermented, found in a number of Asian cultures.
- Kombucha. A fermented tea, origins unknown but it appears in many cultures.
- Kefir. Made from fermented milk, this is similar to yogurt but thinner and with more probiotic activity originating in the Caucasus mountains.
Adding these probiotic organisms to the digestive tract can improve digestive capacity. This is because they can improve the production of hydrochloric acid. Conversely when there is an excess of stomach acid, adding fermented foods can support and protect the intestinal lining.
Adding lacto-fermented foods also supports the release of digestive enzymes throughout the digestive system (stomach, pancreas, and gallbladder), these enzymes help to improve digestion, digestibility, and nutrient absorption from food.
What To Make and What To Buy
The simplest and healthiest option is to purchase whole foods and cook them at home. This can, however, require extra time and effort. So while many functional foods are easy to make at home, sometimes for convenience sake consumers may choose to buy them already prepared at the grocery store. It is easy to be misled by front of package manufacturer claims. It is important to take the time to read the label. It doesn't matter what the functional claims of a product are if it comes with excessive amounts of sugar, additives, preservatives, or artificial ingredients.
Although lacto-ferments, are easy to make at home, they do require monitoring, temperature control, and an understanding of the fermentation process. Purchasing these, either at a grocery store or online, may be a simpler option, especially for those just getting starting with adding these types of foods to their diet.
Challenge: Add at least one new functional food to your daily diet.
Mira Dessy, The Ingredient Guru, is a holistic nutritionist, a popular public speaker, and the author of The Pantry Principle: how to read the label and understand what's really in your food. She can be found online at http://TheIngredientGuru.com