Functional foods are defined as foods that could have a potential positive effect on our health, when consumed in efficacious levels, beyond their basic nutritional value. The term was first used in Japan during the mid-1980s. The potential benefit that these foods might have can be obtained by consuming them as part of a varied diet on a regular basis. 

Functional foods can be conventional foods that naturally contain bioactive substances, foods that have been enriched with bioactive substances and special medical foods. Functional foods can also serve the following purposes:

  • Promote growth and development of children
  • Optimize physiological and metabolic processes
  • May reduce the risk of chronic diseases
  • Optimize health

Many of the products we consume, are classified as functional foods. It is important to distinguish between true functional foods and ones that falsely claim to be. Functional foods have a lot of research that has been conducted on them and these studies all indicate a potential health benefit. Some examples of functional foods include:

Functional foodBioactive componentHealth benefitRecommendation
Fortified margarinesPlant sterol and stanol estersReduce total and LDL cholesterol1.3g/d = sterols 1.7g/d = stanols
Whole oat productsBeta-glucanReduce total and LDL3g/d
Fatty fishOmega-3Reduce tgl and reduces risk of heart disease cardiac death2x p/w

There are many more functional foods in our grocery stores and some have stronger evidence regarding their health benefits. These foods are not ‘magic’ foods or a panacea for poor dietary habits. A healthy diet, along with exercise, sufficient sleep, stress management and no smoking are the best way to go. It’s also very important to ask your doctor or dietician before you add these foods to your diet. Many of the claimed functional foods have dangerous effects when used with certain chronic medication.


  1. Hasler, C., 2002. Functional Foods: Benefits, Concerns and Challenges—A Position Paper from the American Council on Science and Health. The Journal of Nutrition, 132(12), pp.3772-3781.
  2. Butnariu, M. and Sarac, I., 2019. Functional Food. International Journal of Nutrition, 3(3), pp.7-16.