Whether it’s the promise of an immunity-boosting orange juice or cholesterol-lowering cereal or margarine, statistics prove more Americans gladly pay extra for foods with healthful properties.
According to the Center for Culinary Development and Packaged Facts, Americans spend an estimated $90 per year on “functional foods”—foods with health-promoting or disease-preventing properties above their usual nutritional values— totaling $27 billion in 2007.
Is it worth spending the extra cash? The answers vary depending on who you ask.
The lack of a legal definition of functional foods and required pre-approval for many health-promoting compounds by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration likely contributes to today’s ubiquity of functional food products on supermarket shelves.
Although some consumer groups and other critics contend that many manufacturers exaggerate their health claims, consumers are increasingly buying into the notion that foods can have medicinal value.
This article seeks to unravel some of the mystery behind functional food properties to help you evaluate how these superfoods fit into your own nutritional equation. That is without forgetting the importance of regular physical activity, for which even superfoods can be no substitute.
Fabio Comana, ACE Exercise Physiologist and master’s-degreed nutritionist, agrees that functional foods may improve the health of some individuals.
“We need to consume certain amounts of nutrients, minerals and vitamins from our daily diet,” Comana says. “If you eat a balanced diet, meeting the recommended dietary guidelines for good health shouldn’t be an issue. However, for someone who doesn’t eat certain types of foods, such as dairy, getting enough calcium may become a challenge. This is where an orange juice with extra calcium would offer potential benefits.”
Antioxidants are all the rage for good health, even better looks according to some cosmetics makers. What makes antioxidants beneficial is that they are the body’s defense mechanism against free radicals that cause oxidative stress or damage to cells. Present in many vitamins, minerals and carotenoids, foods with antioxidants are often identified by their distinctive colors: The deep red of cherries and tomatoes, orange in carrots, yellow of corn, mango and saffron. Consumption of antioxidants may offer health benefits, but thus far, scientists have yet to confirm they’re truly miracle workers.
For instance, some scientific evidence exists that adding more lycopene to tomatoes, may prevent or help treat heart disease and promote prostate health, Comana says. “But that doesn’t mean that it will benefit everyone’s health by eating more tomato sauce with their pasta.”
Certain FDA-sanctioned healthful foods didn’t measure up to university research standards, according to the August 2007 Special Supplement to the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter.
According to the newsletter, researchers could not find sufficient evidence that tomato or tomato sauce cuts the risk for prostate cancer or that antioxidant vitamins can reduce the risk for cancer. Even green tea, which has been popularly touted as having multiple healthful properties, proved “highly unlikely” to reduce breast or prostate cancer as claimed by several food makers.
Probiotic and prebiotic foods, on the other hand, seem to fare better in the scientific community.
Probiotic and prebiotic
By now, you may have heard that probiotic bacteria, found in certain types of yogurt and fermented milk products, can improve the balance of bacteria in the gut.
A recent article written by gastroenterologist and assistant professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Dr. Patricia Raymond, notes that not all probiotics are created equally. Some strains of probiotics can relieve health problems better than others, she notes.
“If you’re someone who simply suffers from occasional constipation, then a probiotic yogurt may do the trick,” writes Dr. Raymond on medicalnewstoday.com. “However, if you suffer from chronic, serious conditions, a supplement may be more appropriate.”
Her advice: Look for legitimate scientific proof, appropriateness of the product, and a listing of the strain and number of live microorganisms on the food label before spooning up bacteria to ease your pain.
Prebiotic bacteria can also boost the immune system by stimulating the growth of ‘good bacteria’ that fight harmful bacteria in the gut.
Crazy about nuts?
The Institute of Food Research has found that almonds have prebiotic properties that can improve digestive health by increasing beneficial gut bacteria. Another scientific study suggests that natural sugars found in breast milk, now included in prebiotic foods, may also help fight Salmonella and other food-poisoning bacteria.
Enriched With Plant Chemicals
If you’re a chocolate lover, you’ll be delighted to hear that German researchers have found that small amounts of cocoa are not only good for the soul, but can actually lower blood pressure.
That health benefit stems from the polyphenols in cocoa, a group of plant chemicals that includes flavanols.
The emphasis however, is on eating “small amounts: In larger doses, cocoa, which is rich in sugar, fat and calories, can just as easily expand your waist line, which in turn, can cause a myriad of health problems. The same goes for certain types of margarine, cereals and other fortified foods, purported to lower cholesterol levels and often are aimed at people with heart conditions and diabetes.
The safest way to ensure you’re eating a healthy diet is to follow the recommended dietary guidelines: Three ounces of whole grains, 2-1/2 cups of veggies, 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of low-fat or fat-free milk or milk equivalents.
For more detailed information on recommended dietary intake and physical activity guidelines, visit www.mypyramid.gov and www.acefitness.org.
Truly healthy living requires at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity most days of the week, as recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture. To sustain weight loss in adulthood takes 60-90 minutes of daily moderate-intensity physical activity while watching your caloric intake.
A healthy diet and regular physical activity are proven remedies for maintaining a healthy weight and lowering the risk for certain diseases. Adding superfoods to your diet may or may not offer any real health benefits.
Marion Webb is the managing editor for the American Council on Exercise and an ACE-certified Personal Trainer. For specific fitness-related story ideas or comments, please e-mail her directly at email@example.com.