What exactly are functional foods?

funtional foods thrive magazine

There has been quite a bit of talk about functional foods in the past few years with new products constantly released on the market and it’s definitely a trend that will keep growing. But what exactly are they and do we need to make them part of our diet and lifestyle?

Functional foods are whole foods and fortified or enriched foods/ingredients that are thought to have an additional function extending beyond their nutrients content, they may have a beneficial effect on promoting optimal health and reducing the risk of developing certain health conditions.

Here are some examples of functional foods that you may already be using on a regular basis.

Fruits and vegetables
Considered functional foods as when in season, they have the highest concentration of phytonutrients and antioxidants compounds such as beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, anthocyanidins, flavonoids that have been shown to reduce the risk of lifestyle and diet driven conditions.

Whole grains
Foods like oats, quinoa, rye, barley are sources of insoluble fibre and soluble fibre such as beta-glucans, these are helpful in managing blood glucose and cholesterol levels, they are also widely available. With the U.K. population struggling to reach the recommended 30 gr of fibre a day, making them a daily part of your diet can do nothing but good to your overall health and wellbeing.

Beans and legumes
A great source of fibre like whole grains, but also a source of plant-based protein, complex carbohydrates, essential minerals like zinc, potassium, iron, calcium as well as folate, that can support management of cholesterol and blood glucose levels and also reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Be sure to include different varieties of beams and legumes in your diet, each week, this will result in you getting a diverse variety of fibre and nutrients.

Chia, hemp and flax seeds are a good source of omega 3s fatty acids, fibre, calcium and protein which are essential nutrients not only for those following a plant based diet but also for general wellbeing. Very important for cardiovascular and nervous systems function and for proper neural development. They also contain lignans and plant sterols that have been observed to help lowering blood cholesterol levels. [1]

Fermented foods and drinks (sauerkrauts, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kombucha)
These are considered functional foods as they contain probiotics which are beneficial bacteria essential to support immune health (over 70% of our immune cells are in the gut) plus, digestive, hormonal and nervous system functions. The interest and research in gut health and its connection to mental health has definitely put even more of a spotlight on fermented foods, that are for many countries, already a part of their culinary traditions.

Prebiotic foods
One functional food that has been capturing more attention recently. They are connected to gut and digestive health as they contain prebiotic fibre. A fibre that cannot be digested by the body, but feeds the beneficial bacteria that are then able to thrive and exert their positive effects on both our physical and mental wellbeing. This fibre is found in foods like chicory, dandelion, bananas, onions, leeks, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes and tiger nuts.

Fortified foods
Defined functional as they have vitamins and minerals added to them in order to prevent nutrient deficiencies and assure RDAs are met. For example, B12, iodine, iron, calcium, omega 3s that can be present in lower amounts in plants or have a lower absorption rate are added to plant-based milks/yogurts, cereals, whole grains and nutritional yeast.

You could use fortified milks for a hot drink or smoothie, or perhaps add nutritional yeast to your recipes so you can enjoy with your usual meals, thus adding a dose of essential nutrients to them.

Key sources of iodine, essential for the formation of thyroid hormones and our body’s metabolism and omega 3s fatty acids, important nutrients for neurological development, nervous and cardiovascular functions and for their anti-inflammatory action. A nutritionally dense and sustainable option that has been used to create functional food products and supplements.

Medicinal Mushrooms
Most likely one of the functional foods that has had the most attention in recent years, with many companies releasing mushroom based products – from mushroom coffees to meat alternatives and mushroom powered chocolate bars and snacks. In Eastern medicine and in Asia, mushrooms have been long used as a tool to protect and support health and used therapeutically as they are reported to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective and hepatoprotective properties.

Mushrooms are a good source of beta-glucans – an insoluble fibre that seems to improve insulin resistance and blood cholesterol levels stabilisation. They are also able to stimulate the release of certain immune system cells to fight infections and unwanted invaders.

This commonly used spice has been known and used for its unique properties for centuries. The active ingredient in turmeric – curcumin – has potent anti-inflammatory effects, especially for acute inflammation. So potent in fact, that it has been found to be equal or even stronger than standard anti-inflammatory drugs in treating inflammation.[2]

It’s really easy to add some when cooking a curry or bread, mix into a sauce or dip and stir into warm milk to make a turmeric latte. While in these cases the amount of curcumin may not reach therapeutic levels, it’s still great to support our general health and we can benefit from its anti-inflammatory but also antibacterial, anti-fungal and antiviral properties.

Maybe you wouldn’t think of chocolate as functional or health supportive, but cacao contains a large number of flavonoids, antioxidant compounds as well as magnesium that can help with relaxing the nervous system and with lowering elevated blood pressure. Plus, it may help to increase serotonin levels improving our feeling of wellbeing.


1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18053310
2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5003001/

As featured inside our Spring issue 2020. Written by #ThriveExpert Alessandra Felice – who is a registered Nutritional Therapist and Plant Based Chef. She offers nutritional consultations and private chef services UK wide.