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

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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.

Some "treats" pack an unexpected health punch. While you might expect fish, fruit and veggies to be extra healthy, it may come as a welcome surprise to find that some "indulgences" are considered functional foods as well. Yogurt, red wine and coffee have all been found to contain ingredients that appear to give the body a boost.

Yogurts are creamy, versatile treats jam-packed with health benefits. It's a great source of calcium, which is known to prevent osteoporosis and promote bone health. Yogurts also contain probiotics -- the "good bacteria" we all need in our bodies to maintain our immune and digestive health. Probiotic foods can also help in the treatment of urinary tract infections, vaginal yeast infections, and diarrhea.

When it comes to red wine, you may now think of enjoying a glass at night as a way of helping your heart. Red wine is rich in flavonoids, as well as resveratrol, an antioxidant that some researchers believe offers protection from diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Resveratrol comes from the grape skins, and since red wine ferments longer with its skins than white wine, it has more of this palliative ingredient. Too much alcohol can be harmful to your health, so don't overdo it. Try keeping your red wine consumption to a glass with dinner. For those who don't drink at all, grapes and grape juice may offer similar benefits. Pomegranate juice, with its deep red color, is another alternative, offering more antioxidants than many other types of juice.

Doctors have long warned about the risks of consuming too much caffeine, but recent studies have shown that drinking modest amounts of coffee may actually help fight cancer, diabetes and Parkinson's disease. Note that drip coffees are thought to be healthier than unfiltered coffee drinks like lattes because the paper captures elements in the coffee that may raise cholesterol levels.

The antioxidants in black tea also promote better health, and green tea is highly regarded as a major functional food. Green tea contains high levels of catechins, which are potent antioxidants shown to help lower cholesterol by blocking its absorption from the gastrointestinal tract as well as promoting its fecal elimination.

Functional foods with "health" added.   You'll also find the term "functional foods" applied to products that have ingredients added to them to increase their healthful potential. While marketers use this as a selling point, some of these products can have genuine benefits. Buttery spreads with added Omega-3 may promote better heart health than unfortified butter. Orange juice fortified with calcium may help fortify bones and fight osteoporosis, and the vitamin C naturally found in oranges may inhibit cancer. But don't always believe the hype. Do your own research on packaged foods that tout better heart health or claim to fight cancer, and weigh the nutritional value against their unprocessed counterparts.  The actual orange fruit, for example, is still going to provide more nutritional value than most fortified orange juices, which are much higher in sugar and do not contain fiber to slow down absorption.

Overall, functional foods that are unprocessed and unpackaged have more potential to improve your well-being. Also take a closer look at the labels on those "health"-added products to make sure you know what ingredients you're actually eating and how much the product contains. Keep up with the latest studies and consumer reports to know which foods will truly help your body function at its best.

For more about healthy food choices:

Around the Web

Functional food - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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What are functional foods? - MayoClinic.com

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