Course:FNH200/Lessons/Lesson 13/Page 13.1

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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?