Course:FNH200/Lessons/Lesson 13

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Trends for Food in Nutrition and Health

13.0 Overview

In Lesson 1 we discussed the Canadian Food System, including the trends in food consumption. Today, these consumption patterns are including a new trend in foods that provide health benefits to consumers - in other words, an interest in the linkages between Food, Nutrition and Health.

There has been a lot of confusion about the terms used to describe this new category of food products, often referred to as "functional foods", that are consumed beyond meeting nutritional needs and to promote health and/or to reduce the risk of disease.

In this lesson we will examine the concepts of functional foods, natural health products and probiotics, as well as their use in today's food industry. We will also learn about the recent establishment of the Directorate of Natural and Non-prescription Health Products, for those products which are deemed neither food nor drug, and about the ongoing activities related to addressing regulations of health claims for foods.


Upon completion of this lesson you will be able to:

  • explain what functional foods, natural health products, probiotics, and natural and non-prescription health products are, based on the Canadian definitions;
  • articulate your personal position about trends, labelling and regulations related to these products
  • demonstrate an ability to find information relevant to regulation of natural and non-prescription health products in Canada

13.1 What are Functional Foods and Natural Health Products?

Terms to remember

  • Functional foods
  • Natural Health Products
  • Probiotics
  • Lactic acid bacteria
  • Natural and Non-prescription Health Products

Functional foods, designer foods and natural health products are terms that are often used interchangeably, to refer to foods or food components with a positive impact on an individual's health, physical performance or state of mind, in addition to its nutritive value. As consumers seek to optimize their health through food choice and demand healthier foods and food ingredients, a strong demand for functional foods has emerged.

Japan was the first country to introduce the term of "functional foods." In the 1980s the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare introduced a category of foods which had health promoting effects. This was done in order to reduce the escalating cost of health care in Japan. The Japanese termed this food category as: Food for Specific Health Use (FOSHU).

The Japanese definition for FOSHU is "processed foods containing ingredients that aid specific bodily functions in addition to being nutritious." Today more than 100 food items are approved as FOSHU, making Japan the world leader in the development of functional foods. The Japanese have set three conditions for defining a functional food:

  • it must be a food (not a capsule, tablet, powder) derived from naturally occurring ingredients;
  • it can and should be consumed as part of the daily diet; and
  • it has a particular function when ingested, serving to regulate a particular body process (defense mechanism, prevention/recovery from a specific disease, slowing the aging process, control of physical and mental conditions.)

The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare has identified 12 very broad classes of ingredients which they consider to be health-enhancing:

  • Dietary fibre
  • Oligosaccharides
  • Sugar alcohols
  • Amino acids, peptides and proteins
  • Glycosides
  • Alcohols
  • Vitamins
  • Lactic acid bacteria
  • Minerals
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • Phytochemicals and antioxidants

Definitions in Canada

Differentiation is necessary between those products sold and consumed as foods, versus products where a specific component has been isolated from a food and is sold in the form of a tablet, capsule, powder, or other concentrated form.

Although the terms "natural health product" and "functional food" are used commonly around the world, there is no consensus on their meaning. Please see the definitions cited from the Health Canada policy paper on NUTRACEUTICALS/FUNCTIONAL FOODS AND HEALTH CLAIMS ON FOODS and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada website:

"A natural health product is a product isolated or purified from foods that is generally sold in medicinal forms not usually associated with food. A natural health product is demonstrated to have a physiological benefit or provide protection against chronic disease."

"A functional food is similar in appearance to, or may be, a conventional food, is consumed as part of a usual diet, and is demonstrated to have physiological benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions".

To give you an example of each Canadian definition, "Born 3 egg" and "Born 3 chicken" (, which are available in Lower Mainland supermarkets, are considered as functional foods because of the additional feature of benefits provided by their high omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid content. However, the omega-3 fatty acid supplements (tablets) that can be bought at local pharmacies and health stores are considered as a natural health product. From these definitions it is clear that functional foods must be presented as a "food" and not as an isolated form or food constituent, which will be the case of a natural health product.

Want to learn more?
  • What has been done to result in the high omega-3 content of these eggs?
  • What other approaches might be used to produce a functional food with high omega-3 content?
  • Do food product labels provide information to identify the source or approach to produce high omega-3 fatty acid containing foods?

Classification and Sources of Functional Foods

Functional foods are similar in appearance to, or may be, a conventional food, consumed as part of a usual diet, which is demonstrated to have physiological benefits and/or to reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions.

They are developed through various means, such as:

  • fortification with vitamins and/or minerals, beyond mandatory requirements, to provide added health benefits (for example, fortified soy beverages and fruit juice with calcium);
  • addition of bioactive ingredients (for example, margarine with phytosterols, muffins with beta-glucan, yogurts with probiotics, and drinks with herb blends); and
  • enhancement with bioactive components through plant breeding, genetic modification, processing, or special livestock feeding techniques (for example, eggs, milk and meat with omega-3; canola oil high in carotenoids; and strawberries with enhanced levels of ellagic acid).

Table 13.1 lists some examples of natural health products and functional foods, with their associated physiological effects.

Table 13.1 Functional foods and their effects

Type Example Physiological Effect
Natural Health Product Dietary fibre
  • reduced risk of colon cancer
  • lowers cholesterol
Vitamins C and E
  • reduce heart disease
  • cancer prevention
  • lowers cholesterol
  • reduced risk of certain types of cancer
Functional Food BenecolTM spread
  • reduced "bad" LDL cholesterol
TropicanaTM  orange juices with added Calcium and Vitamin D
  • minimize risk of development of osteoporosis
Kellog's All BranTM cereal
  • helps regulate the gastrointestinal condition

Most of the functional foods that have been developed are beverages. Some examples include Japan's best-selling soft drink "FibeMini" which contains dietary fibre supplement, minerals, and vitamins. Another example is Omega-3 milk beverages" that are now available to Canadian consumers.

Want to learn more?
  • Can you think of functional food products available in the Canadian marketplace?

13.2 What are Probiotics?

The term probiotics refers to health-promoting microorganisms that will improve the intestinal microflora balance when deliberately ingested. Probiotics may be consumed in the form of natural health product or functional food products.

Want to learn more?
  • Examples of probiotics are bacteria from the genera Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. See the two products below: the product on the left has Lactobacilluscasei, whereas the products on the right have L.caseidefensins and Lactobacillus johnsonii.
  • See the links below for examples of probiotic-containing products

These lactic acid bacteria are non-pathogenic, gram-positive bacteria that have lactic acid as a primary metabolic end-product and are traditionally used in the production of yogurt. Lactobacillus and various Bifidobacterium sp. are also dominant organisms in the human small and large intestines, respectively. In probiotic yogurts, some of the desirable bacteria are added in the form of concentrated cultures after completion of the fermentation process.

As you will remember from Lesson 9, fermented food products provide many nutritional advantages such as ease of digestibility and improved availability of some nutrients. Scientific studies have suggested that by stimulating the growth of bifidobacteria and some other probiotics gastrointestinal disorders, intestinal discomfort, and flatulence can be reduced. There are even suggestions that other serious health problems, such as diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and even the development of colon cancer may be prevented by consuming sufficient quantity of foods containing viable (live) probiotics. It is believed that the beneficial properties of probiotics against colon cancer are associated with the metabolic conversion, degradation and/or absorption of carcinogenic compounds as well as stimulation of the immune system.

However, these probiotic bacteria (such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidus.) must be present in numbers high enough to have a physiological effect on the consumer. These numbers should be above 106 (1 million) viable organisms per ml and at least 100 ml of the product should be consumed twice per week. Survival of the probiotic cultures during distribution, retailing and in the consumer's home is required to maintain efficacy of those food products (probiotic yogurts) or natural health products (capsules of probiotic bacteria).

13.3 Natural and Non-prescription Health Products (NNHPs)

What are natural and non-prescription health products (NNHPs) and how are they regulated?

"Recent surveys have shown that more than one-half of Canadian consumers regularly take vitamins and minerals, herbal products, homeopathic medicines and the like, products that have come to be known as natural and non-prescription health products (NNHPs)."

"These products are used to prevent, diagnose or treat disease, restore or correct function, or maintain or promote health. NNHPs may be derived from plants, animals or micro-organisms."

(Reference: Health Canada, Health Products and Food Branch, Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate, Expert Advisory Committee on Natural and Non-prescription Health Products. 2001. Quoted, with bold font added, from the November 2003 (issue 7) Health Policy Research Bulletin of Health Canada).

Think about the following questions:

  • Should NNHPs be regulated as foods (with no or limited health claims allowed) or drugs (with the requirement of rigorous standards of evidence based on clinical trials, that does not readily recognize evidence based on a "history of safe use," which many NNHPs have enjoyed)?
  • Can NNHPs be considered safe for consumption at any dose, since they are "natural"?
  • Should health claims be allowed for NNHPs? If so, how will the consumer know what to expect in terms of quality or efficacy or standard level of bioactive ingredient in the NNHP?

These questions have led to the creation within Health Canada of a new Office of Health Products, now known as the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate, to establish new regulations and policies addressing the unique nature of NNHPs, with the goal of ensuring safe, effective and high quality products, while respecting Canadians' freedom of choice, and philosophical and cultural diversity.

The new Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Regulations were published in June 2003, in Canada Gazette, Part II, and came into effect on January 1, 2004, with a transition period for phasing in and compliance. The regulations provide details regarding: definitions, product licensing, adverse reaction reporting, site licensing, good manufacturing practices, clinical trials involving human subjects, types of evidence and claims, and labelling and packaging requirements.

Critical Thinking
  • Take a look at the Frequently Asked Questions about the NNHP Regulations.
  • Can you answer the following questions?
    • What types of natural and non-prescription health products are affected by these new Regulations?
    • How will consumers know when a natural and non-prescription health product has been authorized for sale by Health Canada?
    • How will products be labeled under the new Regulations?
  • Note that while the licensing of natural and non-prescription health products (NNHPs) in pill or tablet form are reviewed by the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate, it is the Food Directorate that reviews NNHPs in food formats (e.g. juices, yogurts, etc).
    • What is your opinion on this issue - should health claims be allowed for foods?
    • What risks, if any, need to be considered along with the benefits being claimed for functional foods and natural and non-prescription health products?

13.4 Summary of Lesson 13

In this lesson you were introduced to the concepts of functional foods, natural health product and probiotics. A few examples of each category have been provided to solidify the concepts. You have also learned about the regulations pertaining these food products.


FNH 200 Course content on this wiki page and associated lesson pages was originally authored by Drs. Brent Skura, Andrea Liceaga, and Eunice Li-Chan. Ongoing edits and updates are contributed by past and current instructors including Drs. Andrea Liceaga, Azita Madadi-Noei, Nooshin Alizadeh-Pasdar, and Judy Chan.

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Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document according to the terms in Creative Commons License, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0. The full text of this license may be found here: CC by-nc-sa 3.0

1. Which country led the way in the regulation of functional foods?

The United States

2. Which of the following are ways to develop (make/create) functional foods?

By adding vitamins and/or minerals
By adding bioactive ingredients
Produce foods with increased levels of bioactive ingredients through breeding and/or genetic modifications
Produce food with increased levels of bioactive ingredients through processing and/or livestock feeding

3. What type of food is most commonly designed to be a functional food?


4. How much probiotic bacteria must be in a food for it to have a physiological effect on the consumer? (cells per ml and at least 100 mL consumed twice per week)


5. Which one is considered a probiotic bacteria?

Listeria monocytogenes
Lactobacillus acidophilus
Clostridium botulinum
Saccharomyces cerevisiae