THE BLOG
08/01/2011 08:12 am ET | Updated Oct 01, 2011

Weekly Health Tip: What Are So-Called 'Functional Foods'?

If you're concerned with eating healthy, you may have heard about "functional foods." Nutritionists and marketers use this term to describe foods that go beyond the basics of supplying nutrients to the body and appear to help ward off and combat certain chronic illnesses.

In a way, these foods are misnamed -- they are far more than simply functional. The New York Times calls them "foods with benefits." While many functional foods deliver real potential health benefits, consumers need to be aware of packaged foods that use the term mostly as a marketing tool. To make smart choices, you have to distinguish the products that offer more hype than health from the foods that may really make a difference.

Traditional healthy choices are now healthier than ever. Your whole life you've probably been told that you need to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to stay healthy. Now researchers believe these foods are even better for you than initially thought. Fruits and vegetables, especially those rich in color, are among the top functional foods. Fruits such as blueberries and red cherries come loaded with antioxidants called flavonoids; and carrots, spinach, kale and sweet potatoes are packed with antioxidants called carotenoids. These antioxidants play a role in reducing the risk of some types of cancer and heart disease by neutralizing free radicals, which are unstable atoms or molecules in the body that cause cell damage.

Vitamins A, C and E in many of these fruits and vegetables also act as antioxidants. Tomatoes, especially those made into processed tomato products like sauce or ketchup, have the added bonus of lycopene, a type of antioxidant that has been shown to bolster prostate health. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower, have been linked to lowering cancer risk, and garlic and onions have demonstrated detoxicating effects on the body. Whole grains seem to offer protection against coronary disease.

Fish, another functional food, also wards off heart disease and lowers blood pressure. Salmon, sardines and tuna deliver high doses of Omega-3, also known as the "good" fat. The Omega-3 fatty acids in fish have hypotensive properties due to their stimulation of hormone-like compounds called "prostaglandins," which regulate the balance of salt retention and water excretion. This hypotensive effect is especially pronounced in individuals with hypertension, atherosclerosis and hypercholesterolemia. Omega-3 fatty acids also reduce inflammation in the body that can damage blood vessels. When it comes to eating sea creatures, however, there is a catch. Many contain high levels of mercury and other contaminants, so follow the American Heart Association's recommendation and try to eat fish at least two times a week, but don't go overboard. For alternative sources of Omega-3, try beans, walnuts and flax seed.