A functional food is any food that has (or purports to have) a health function beyond basic nutrition. This name can be used to describe both processed foods and natural ones: for example, an orange could be considered a "functional food" because it contains high amounts of Vitamin C.

Yet the term "functional food" is more often used to refer to a food to which a nutrient has been added, usually in an attempt to imbue that food with a specific health effect.

For instance: a sports drink that creators claim will give you more energy and keep you hydrated because of added electrolytes, or a yogurt with added probiotics that will supposedly improve your digestion.

Overlapping somewhat with the category of functional food is "fortified" food. However, nutrients are usually added to fortified food to reduce the risk of deficiency across a population or make it generally "healthier" rather than to construe a specific health benefit.

Similar but slightly different are enriched foods, which are highly processed foods that have been "enriched" with the nutrients they lost during processing.

These sorts of enhanced foods have become more and more prevalent as our collective knowledge about nutrition has grown and as our culture has transitioned from a fast-food obsessed culture to a wellness-obsessed one.

The best of them have also done some great things. For instance: the fortification of salt with iodine has greatly reduced the incidence of goiter, and the niacin and Vitamin D now found in bread and milk have greatly reduced the incidence of rickets and pellagra.

Taking the concept of functional food one step further are "nutraceuticals," which are what you get when you cross “nutrients” and “pharmaceuticals.” Nutraceuticals are a class of dietary supplements which are derived from food but are packaged for consumption in a non-food form.

Nutraceuticals may be intended to improve overall health, prevent future illness, or to relieve the symptoms of a specific disease. For example, one might take an omega-3 capsule derived from fish oil in hopes of improving their memory or a garlic capsule to lower their blood pressure.

However, one reason to be wary of functional foods and nutraceuticals is that they are regulated more like food than like actual pharmaceutical drugs.

Any health claims these products make still have to have some basis if their manufacturers want to avoid costly lawsuits, but this basis can come from animal research, test tube studies, or potentially flawed epidemiological analysis as opposed to the extensive tests that would be required to certify a medical drug.

There's also no guarantee that a functional food with an added nutrient won't also contain potentially dangerous ingredients, additives, and preservatives.

For example, though Gatorade does indeed contain critical electrolytes like sodium and potassium, most varieties also contain food dyes that have been tentatively linked with hyperactivity in children and even cancer.

It's also important to consider that even a relatively healthy functional food or nutraceutical could be harmful if consumed by someone who doesn't need it.

While a high-sugar sports drink may be a good choice for a hard-core athlete who needs to withstand long hours on the field, someone who drinks the same beverage during a leisurely walk could well end up consuming more calories than they burn off.

Problems may also arise when someone decides to consume more of a nutraceutical or functional food than is recommended in an overzealous attempt to be "healthy." This is because many nutrients can be as harmful if absorbed in excess as they are when one doesn't consume enough.

The risk of overdose is especially high for children, who generally need far less of any given nutrient than an adult would. Sweet-tasting dietary supplements that look and taste like candy have actually led to several tragic deaths.

Women and men also typically have different nutritional requirements, so a healthy dose for one might be a mild overdose for another.

Then there are those who try to use functional foods and nutraceuticals as a replacement for a healthy diet rather than a supplement to it.

It's true that certain supplements could help mitigate some of the effects of a micronutrient-poor and high fat-and-sugar diet and help you heal the damage wrought by a lifetime of poor nutrition if you're new to healthy eating.

However, there's no food or nutraceutical in the world that can substitute for a healthy diet when it comes to preventing the metabolic cascade that can result in obesity and many devastating associated health problems.

Yet there are certain cases in which supplements actually are your best option. For example, the health benefits of certain plant compounds are only evident at doses that would be almost impossible to consume while eating only the plant, in which case an extract might be the way to go.

Supplements and functional foods may also be helpful to specific vulnerable groups, like older adults, pregnant women, and vegans and vegetarians.

Meanwhile, genetic modification is slowly changing the face of fortified and functional foods entirely. Now, instead of simply adding nutrients to our food products, we can engineer our food to grow these nutrients themselves!

For instance, scientists are already at work developing strains of rice that will contain more vitamin A and strains that will contain more resistant starch. On the extreme end, some experts imagine a future in which we can use genetic engineering to create, for instance, an orange for diabetics that comes with a built in dose of insulin.As far as today's functional food landscape: you probably shouldn't think twice about the probiotics in your yogurt, but the world of nutraceuticals and more extreme functional foods is not something you'd want to jump into without first doing a lot of research.

Checking with your doctor is also probably prudent, especially if you have any chronic health issues or are taking any medications that these nutraceuticals might interfere with.

In the end, there's no reason we need to see functional foods and nutraceuticals as our enemy, but maybe we should see them as a last resort compared to whole, healthy foods.

This is because the health benefits of most foods can't be isolated to any one nutrient or component. For example, if you took a folate supplement instead of eating your green vegetables, you would be missing out on Vitamin K, iron, fiber, and cancer fighting antioxidants like glucosinalates.

Plus, research has found that while a higher intake of micronutrients from food was almost always associated with decreased mortality risk, higher intake from supplements occasionally increased it!
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