By Sharon Palmer for Environmental Nutrition February 2010
As the new decade unfolds, functional foods—foods that have a beneficial health effect—are as hot as ever. In fact, the functional food industry is projected to grow 56 percent between 2008 and 2011. What’s driving the interest in functional foods? Barbara Katz, president of HealthFocus International, a company focusing on health and nutrition market research, says it’s all about age. “Boomers are used to having what they want and they are no different when it comes to their health. One of the biggest trends we see is the increase in the perceived control shoppers think they have over their own health. Shoppers now want to be a part of the dialogue and are increasingly going to the internet and to one another to seek answers to questions and gather information before they go to the doctor. On the other side of the spectrum, 18-29 year old shoppers are driving the interest. But younger shoppers have the greatest concerns over things like appearance and energy, when the oldest shoppers switch their concerns to more age-related things.”
Defining functional foods. It’s been tough to pin down what the term “functional food” means. According to the April 2009 position on functional foods by the American Dietetic Association (ADA), all foods are functional at some physiological level, because they provide nutrients or other substances that furnish energy, sustain growth, or maintain or repair vital processes. While the functional food category is not officially recognized by the Food and Drug Administration, the ADA considers functional foods as whole foods and fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health. This criteria creates a list of functional foods as varied as nuts, tomatoes, calcium-fortified orange juice, energy bars, bottled teas, foods with fish oils and gluten-free foods. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misleading information about the health potential of functional foods. Thus, it’s important to evaluate each product on the basis of scientific evidence before you buy into their benefits.
Top 16 Functional Foods for 2010
EN investigated current food trends in order to make their predictions for the top functional foods you might see hitting market shelves this year.
1. Zest for Spices. From Latin to Indian, spices reign supreme. Thanks to the well-publicized health benefits of spices like turmeric and pepper, the public has more reason to feel the heat. Look for exotic spices in unusual places, from potato chips to chocolate bars.
2. Sweet Potatoes, One Hot Potato. Sweet potatoes are turning up everywhere, from French fries to chips. A delicious alternative to the white potato, sweet potatoes are nutrition superstars of fiber and vitamins A, C and B6.
3. Culinary Herb Amore. Green herbs, from rosemary to cilantro, are the new black in the food product world. They not only provide gourmet flavor, aroma and appearance, people equate green herbs with health-promoting antioxidants. These verdant herbs are highlighted in unexpected foods, such as ice cream and cookies.
4. Free Food. Anything carrying “free”—from gluten-free to milk-free—on its label is poised to be popular. More and more people are in pursuit of foods that fit their own personalized nutritional needs. The latest generation of “free” foods puts an emphasis on taste and quality.
5. Immune Booster. Foods claiming to boost the immune system, such as probiotics and antioxidants, are on the upswing, thanks to recent swine flu fears. But be vigilant against overzealous marketing claims about the immune-fueling power of some products.
6. Eating up Aromatherapy. Why stop with the usual aromas like cinnamon and sage you associate with your favorite foods? Now you can find lavender, rose water and lemon oil in a biscuit or beverage for a spa-like culinary experience.
7. Energy Drive. Energy is a big word in food marketing. Stimulating ingredients such as caffeine and ginseng are popular in beverages, as well as bars, candies and gums. There is limited evidence that energy drinks decrease mental fatigue, but experts stress caution when consuming high-caffeine products, especially if you are sensitive to caffeine and consume more than one per day.
8. Good Digestion. From high-fiber to probiotics, it’s all about promoting a healthy colon. Look for high-fiber to make a presence outside of the cereal aisle in sweeteners, yogurts and even beverages. Probiotics are thinking out of the yogurt carton by showing up in nutrition bars, cheese and even pizza.
9. Scaling Down. Weight control foods continue to be popular, thanks to public knowledge about the burden of obesity in our society. Foods and beverages that make you feel fuller (such as high-fiber products) and products containing ingredients proposed to boost metabolism (like green tea) are making a splash, but keep in mind that there is little scientific evidence that indicates foods can promote significant increases in metabolism.
10. Superfruits to the Rescue. Superfruits such as acai and blueberries are as popular as ever. They are turning up in smoothies, cereals and desserts. While eating more fruit is a definite plus—it is a low-calorie, nutritious way to up your fiber, vitamin, and antioxidant intake—be careful about exotic superfruit scams that ask for a high price and claim miraculous benefits.
11. Omega-3 King. With a body of scientific evidence supporting health benefits, omega-3 fatty acids continue to rule the supermarket aisle. Not only are they found naturally in foods like walnuts and fish, they are added to a growing list of foods including juice, salad dressings, yogurt and even ice cream.
12. Power Snacks. “Smart” snacks do more than satisfy a growling stomach, they provide key functional ingredients from nuts, fruits, seeds and added vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. While many provide smarter snack choices than vending machine fare, keep an eye on the nutrition facts label to know what you’re getting.
13. Brain Food. Foods marketed to boost brain power in all age groups—from infancy to the senior years—are all the rage. Ingredients such as omega-3 fatty acids and CoQ10 are star ingredients in “brain” foods like bars, juice and cereals. Though there is immerging evidence on the power of various nutrients to promote cognitive health, beware of overly optimistic benefits advertised on many products.
14. Antioxidant Buzz. Antioxidants are definitely this year’s food buzz word; they’re being pushed in everything from tea to candy. Remember that antioxidants found naturally in whole plant foods are linked with optimal health, but studies have found that taking single antioxidant supplements may not be so healthful—this practice was linked with higher lung cancer rates, especially among smokers.
15. Beauty By the Bite. Foods and beverages aimed at anti-aging and beauty have made it big. Containing such ingredients as resveratrol or vitamin E, bottled beverages and chocolates are hoping to turn back time on your face. While the science on nutrition and beauty is still in its infancy, there is some evidence that essential fatty acids and vitamins C and E may provide some skin benefits. Be on the lookout for products that sound too good to be true.
16. Botanical Bonanza. Look for botanicals, from gingko biloba to Echinacea, to make a larger presence in products such as beverages, snacks and candies. Many foods stocked with botanicals (substances coming from plants) highlight their purported health benefits, but experts warn that many botanicals have not yet been sufficiently tested for safety and dosage levels.
The anti-functional food movement. Ironically, one of the hottest food trends of the year is an emphasis on pure, clean foods—free of toxins, chemicals and additives. Even the packaging of many new age foods have gotten a clean facelift, featuring minimal labeling and see-through packaging, allowing consumers to see how “pure” and “real” products really are. Maybe this movement is on to something, because the best functional foods on our list are those that are minimally processed, found in their whole state, and naturally rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants