Let’s start with what a functional food (AKA nutraceutical) is: by definition, this is a food that has been enriched with nutrients or substances to provide additional benefits above its basic nutritional value.
For example, many foods have added: probiotics (good bacteria), prebiotics (food to feed your naturally occurring good bacteria), plant sterols & stanols (added to foods to help reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol) or vitamins/minerals.
As a general rule of thumb, you want to obtain the majority of your macro and micronutrients from whole complete foods sources with a diverse diet. However, there are circumstances where functional foods can be a great addition. For example, if you’re replacing cow’s milk with a plant-based alternative, you want to mimic the ingredients you are missing out on such as calcium, iodine and smaller levels of B vitamins and fat-soluble vitamins.
This will make your plant-based alternative a functional food. We also know there are certain people who may benefit from the addition of probiotic enriched foods, for example.
Functional foods certainly do exist – but beware of their marketing! These foods often need to be taken at a specific dose to see a benefit. They aren’t a “superfood”, and they are certainly not a medicine! Whilst they can provide health benefits and be a useful addition for some people, it’s important to remember that functional foods aren’t the quick fix to health problems and shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle