Functional foods help keep you in tip-top shape

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By: Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross
lienhart@purdue.edu

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Much research proves that food is intimately linked to optimal health. At the core of a “food as medicine” philosophy is functional foods.

Phytochemicals and functional foods are broad terms that have attracted significant attention from scientific researchers, health professionals and journalists.

Although there isn’t an exact definition, “functional foods” usually refers to foods containing significant levels of naturally occurring biologically active components that impart health benefits beyond the basic essential nutrients.

These components may play a vital role in disease prevention and health promotion, but there is no recommended daily allowance.

Functional components have always been present in foods. What is new is that researchers are identifying these components and trying to determine exactly what benefits they may offer.

Functional attributes of many traditional foods are being discovered, while new food products are also in development to enhance or incorporate beneficial components. 

Growing consumer interest in the relationship between healthy eating and health has produced an increased demand for ongoing research.

Numerous foods meet the definition of functional foods. Many vegetables, fruits, whole grains and soy foods have been recognized for potential cancer prevention benefits in innumerable studies. 

Three examples of functional foods are:

  • Oats. Oats contain beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering blood cholesterol, a recognized risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
  • Tomato. Tomatoes get their red color from lycopene, a carotenoid that fights the uncontrolled growth of cells into tumors. Consumption of tomatoes may reduce the risk for colon, prostate, bladder and pancreatic cancer.
  • Broccoli. Broccoli contains indoles that may protect cells from damage by carcinogens and help the liver deactivate estrogen-like compounds that may promote breast cancer.
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