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Functional foods: What is meant by “functional food”?

It is no secret that nutrition plays an important role in human life. The right foods can have many positive effects. This is where functional food comes into play. What are functional foods and how do they help improve health?

Functional foods: a definition

Functional foods or functional foods are foods and drinks that do more than just supply the body with energy. They exceed this function by being enriched with certain additives. These include vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, live bacterial cultures, fibre or secondary plant substances.

Contrary to general opinion, there is no standardised definition of functional foods. However, manufacturers are subject to certain requirements. The Health Claims Regulation comes into play. The EU regulation created it to stipulate the amount of the stated nutrient that must be contained in the food.

It is important to understand that functional foods are not food supplements or medicines. In simple terms, functional foods are simply foods with additional health benefits.

What additives are used in functional foods?

Secondary plant substances are so popular as additives because they can combat free radicals. These are caused by harmful environmental influences or metabolic processes. The secondary plant substances in functional foods include carotenoids and polyphenols.

Vitamins that are often used in functional foods include vitamin C and vitamin E in particular. They are relevant for a well-functioning immune system . Folic acid(vitamin B9) is particularly relevant for pregnant women.

Fibre is mainly contained in products that are intended to support healthy digestion and minerals are used in functional foods for a healthy muscular and nervous system. Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are intended to protect the cardiovascular system.

Examples of functional foods

Functional foods include products used in everyday life. We have compiled a short list of common examples of functional foods:

– Probiotic drinking yoghurts

– ACE drinks with artificially added vitamins

– Margarine with plant sterols for a cholesterol-lowering effect

– Mueslis with added iron and calcium

There are also more and more functional foods in the area of protein bars and energy drinks. The caffeinated drinks for more energy become functional food thanks to the ingredients taurine, caffeine or glucoronolactone. And protein bars have a positive effect on training as they provide plenty of protein, which is why they are also strictly speaking functional foods.

Where do functional foods come from?

Functional food has its origins in Japan. Foods with ingredients that are supposed to offer additional health benefits have been on the market there since 1985. This added health benefit can also be labelled as such.

Functional food is also very popular in the USA. However, health-promoting foods are not everything. There is also so-called “beauty food” or “brain food”. Depending on the category, these foods are aimed at an aesthetic appearance or a higher ability to concentrate.

In Europe and Germany, functional foods have only been around for a few years. However, the market is growing steadily as the demand for foods with health benefits increases. However, it is strictly regulated which claims manufacturers are allowed to make. This means that certain claims may only be made if the effect of the ingredients has been scientifically proven. Precise instructions for consumption are also required so that consumers know how to handle the food correctly.

Functional foods: advantages and disadvantages at a glance

At first glance, functional foods seem absolutely practical and beneficial. Many consumers would not even realise that they can also have disadvantages. However, there are actually a few factors to consider before consuming them.

Those who have an increased need for nutrients generally benefit from functional foods. Athletes or pregnant women, for example, need larger amounts of minerals and vitamins. They are usually unable to meet these requirements through their diet. In these cases, functional foods are a real blessing. They manage to compensate for a deficit and have a positive effect on health.

However, you should not reach for functional foods without thinking. Some nutrients can be harmful if you consume too much of them. An excess can lead to real discomfort.

Furthermore, such foods should not be seen as a substitute for a healthy lifestyle. Like food supplements, functional foods should only be consumed as a supplement. A balanced and healthy diet is still important.

Anyone who eats a healthy diet and has no illness that leads to a specific deficiency can usually cover their daily requirement of vitamins and minerals with normal foods. Functional foods are therefore not absolutely necessary to stay healthy and well nourished.

Functional foods also harbour a certain risk. Because they are enriched with vitamins and minerals, foods are often regarded as healthy when they are not. For example, more and more manufacturers of sweets have started to add calcium or vitamin C just to make their products appear healthier than they actually are. This can make it more difficult for consumers to differentiate which foods are really healthy and which are not. A heavily sugared chocolate bar does not become healthy just because it is suddenly enriched with calcium.

Functional foods at a glance: Focus on examples

Various additives are what make functional foods what they are. The following examples show which additives are particularly common and what you should look out for. Functional food is not always necessary.


Vitamins are very important for the human body. This is why manufacturers of functional foods also focus on adding vitamins. Drinks, dairy products and many other products contain vitamins C, vitamin E or vitamin A.

Consumers should only be careful with sweets. They do not become healthy just because they contain a certain amount of a vitamin. This can often lead to misconceptions. In addition, functional foods with vitamins are not always necessary. If you eat enough fruit and vegetables, you will usually cover your daily vitamin requirements.

Dietary fibre

Dietary fibres are also known as prebiotics. They have a major influence on intestinal health. Inulin and oligofructose in particular can supply the beneficial bacteria in the large intestine with all the important nutrients.

Functional foods often focus on particularly high-fibre versions of bread, dairy products and muesli bars. These are not bad per se – quite the opposite. However, consumers can also ensure sufficient fibre in their diet by eating a balanced diet. Pulses, fruit and vegetables are full of prebiotics that promote intestinal health.

Bacterial cultures

Special bacterial cultures are particularly popular as an additive in yoghurts or yoghurt drinks. These are viable microbes that are supposed to colonise the large intestine. They are also known as probiotics. As around 80 % of the immune system is located in the gut, it is not surprising that it should be strengthened.

However, it doesn’t always have to be functional yoghurt. Even ordinary natural yoghurt can support the intestinal flora. It is often even healthier as it contains no sugar or other sweeteners.

How do you recognise functional foods?

Functional food is often indistinguishable from conventional food at first glance. Consumers should therefore take a closer look at the products when shopping. The following terms or similar designations often distinguish functional foods from conventional yoghurts, juices and the like:

– “strong bones”

– “immune-boosting”

– “cholesterol-lowering”

However, it is not only such advertising terms that indicate functional foods. The addition “contains calcium” or “rich in fibre” also speaks for functional food. The simple reason for this is that manufacturers must fulfil certain regulations in order to be allowed to use these words. The Health Claims Regulation states exactly what proportion of a nutrient must be included.

Functional foods also always state the exact amount that must be consumed in order for consumers to achieve a health effect. Nutritional value tables and other information are also mandatory.

Functional foods: examples

The term “Fruit plus C” is printed on a fruit juice. It is advertised with the words “for your immune system”. This is a functional food. The packaging must contain the following information:

Nutritional table and percentages of minerals and vitamins

– Information on the frequency and quantity of consumption in order to achieve a positive effect

– General information on the importance of a healthy and varied diet

– Information on which people should avoid the food

Warning if excessive consumption could be dangerous to health

The example must also contain at least 12 mg of vitamin C in 100 ml. This is because the manufacturer advertises the ingredient.

Alternative to functional foods: Food supplements for targeted supplementation

Functional foods can be very practical, but they also come with certain risks. This is why many people still prefer to take food supplements if they notice a deficiency. If a person lacks certain vitamins or minerals, it may be advisable to take high-quality and, above all, natural supplements. Kingnature, for example, offers healthy food supplements that are easily absorbed by the body. In this way, you can specifically counteract a deficiency.

Conclusion: functional foods are not always healthy

Even if functional foods appear to be absolutely healthy at first glance, they are not always as harmless as you might think. For this reason, supplementing with food supplements is a safe way of supplying the body with missing nutrients. Functional food can also be quite good – consumers should only pay attention to the respective products and take a close look at the manufacturers. However, the most important thing is still a healthy and balanced diet. Functional food should never replace a healthy lifestyle.