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Ana Rita Horta

Nutritionist

Functional food: super food or super marketing?  

HPA Magazine 12


Unquestionably, one of the biggest trends in the food market relates to an increasingly emerging concept referred to as “super-food”. But, does science confirm this new status ascribed to some food? Nutritious and tasty, they are without doubt, but let's see if their nutritional characteristics so widely disseminated through the media, coincide with reality.


It is not easy to pinpoint their origin as there are references to the therapeutic "powers" of some foods that date back thousands of years. However, the concept of functional food originated in the twentieth century in the 1980s in Japan, with this type of food being a separate class labeled FOSHU (food for specified health uses). The interest in functional foods was launched and grew as a result of the increase in health costs, making it necessary to adopt strategies for the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, given the increasing average life expectancy.
The European Commission's Concerted Action on Functional Food Science in Europe (FuFoSE), coordinated by the International Life Science Institute (ILSI) Europe, defined functional foods as: "all those that demonstrate a satisfactory influence on one or more functions of the human body, in addition to the already known nutritional benefits, which is relevant in improving the state of health and well-being. " Therefore, a food acquires functional food status whenever it gives rise to beneficial physiological effects on health, namely in reducing the risk of developing disease or contributing to the maintenance / promotion of health, in addition to its basic function: nutrition. However, its nutritional wealth is not, by itself, a protective shield against all evils, contrary to what is often advertised.
Let's take a few examples: a dessert spoon of raw cocoa powder (rich in magnesium) is equivalent to a small banana; 5g of spirulina powder (rich in iron) is equivalent to two tablespoons of lentils; 30g of goji berries (high in vitamin C) are equivalent to ¼ orange; 5g of açaí (high content of vitamin A) is equivalent to a small cooked beet.

Each functional food has one or several bioactive compounds that are considered to be responsible for the health benefits of these foods. The most common bioactive compounds are: antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E, flavonoids, beta-carotene, lycopene, curcumin, etc.), polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega 3, omega 6, omega 9), dietary fibers, prebiotics , probiotics, etc.
However, these compounds must be present in foods (synergy between various nutrients) and not isolated in tablets or capsules and must demonstrate their effect in quantities that are expected to be consumed in a normal diet. It is important to note that their therapeutic dose is often not attainable with food in its natural state, so they should not be elevated to the category of "Gods" but rather used as nutritional strategies in a diverse and healthy diet.