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Functional Summaries on Food

Are you starving for information about functional foods?

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) recently served up the first in a series of fact sheets on various food components and their potential health benefits. Functional foods refers to any food or food component that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.

The first fact sheet provides information on antioxidants, including health effects, research, Web links, and dietary sourcess.

Future fact sheets will cover functional foods such as soy protein, plant stanols and sterols, omega-3 fatty acids, and pre-and probiotics.

The IFIC is primarily supported by the food, beverage and agricultural industries.

We have long been told that plant foods, including fruits, vegetables and grains, are good for us. Well, the research confirms that some of these foods do, as part of an overall healthful diet, have the potential to delay the onset of many age-related diseases. This appears to be due to high levels of antioxidants and other phytonutrients. Antioxidants comprise many components-some vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, polyphenols-all present in a variety of foods. Some are natural colorants characterized by their distinctive colors-the deep red color of cherries, the red color in tomatoes, the orange color in carrots, and the yellow color of corn, mangos and saffron. The most well-known antioxidants are vitamins A, C and E, beta carotene, and selenium.

Antioxidant Action
Humans need oxygen to live, but oxygen also causes undesirable oxidation, like the process that corrodes metals and turns sliced apples brown. Oxidation produces sometimes dangerously reactive substances-free radicals-that are normally formed within the body. While the body has its defenses against such substances, they nonetheless have potential to damage key components such as DNA, proteins and lipids (fats). Antioxidants are capable of stabilizing free radicals before they can cause harm in much the same way as coating sliced apples with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) will prevent browning.

Research implicates free radicals in development of a number of degenerative diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease, immune dysfunction, cataracts and macular degeneration. However, free radicals are also acknowledged to have beneficial roles in the body. So, free radicals and antioxidants must exist in balance. It is suggested that certain conditions, such as chronic diseases and aging, can tip the balance in favor of free radicals that cause ill effects. For example, the development of cancerous tumors is believed to be initiated, at least in part, by free radicals.

Consumption of the carotenoid antioxidant lutein has been shown to increase macular pigment density. Whether this will prevent or reverse the progression of macular degeneration remains to be seen. Consumption of teas, both green and black, provides rapid absorption of catechins, a polyphenol antioxidant that helps to maintain cardiovascular health and may reduce the risk of some cancers. Until recently, it seemed clear that antioxidants were almost a panacea for continued good health, spawning a huge industry attempting to meet consumer demand. It is only as more research has probed into the mechanisms of antioxidant action, that it seems clear that a far more complex story needs unraveling. For example, there are indications that certain individuals, such as smokers, should not consume high-dose supplemental beta carotene.

There still remains a deficiency of direct experimental evidence from randomized trials, leading to different recommendations for different populations. The American Heart Association, while encouraged by results of clinical trials of vitamin E, does not yet recommend vitamin E supplements. Rather, the organization advocates that the general population consume a "balanced diet with emphasis on antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and whole grains,".until further studies can confirm the initial positive findings. On the other hand, the National Academy of Sciences Food and Nutrition Board recently increased the Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) for vitamin E, which may be difficult to obtain from current diets.

The Bottom Line
Research indicates that there are overall health benefits from antioxidant-rich foods consumed in the diet. The results of clinical trials, which support the benefits of antioxidant supplements, are inconsistent. Current recommendations by health professionals are to consume a varied diet with at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables and 6 - 11 servings of grains per day. A daily multivitamin containing antioxidants may provide additional benefits.


Naturally occurring in foods like:

Tomatoes, Corn, Carrots, Mangos, Sweet Potatoes, Broccoli, Soybeans, Cantaloupe, Oranges, Spinach, Nuts, Lettuce, Celery, Liver, Fish Oil, Seeds, Grains, Tea (Black and Green).


  • Neutralize Free Radicals
  • Maintain Healthy Vision
  • May Reduce Risk Of:
    • Cancer (Colon, Prostate, Skin)
    • Cognitive Impairment
    • Immune Dysfunction
    • Cardiovascular Diseases

Other Resources:
American Dietetic Association

American Heart Association

Institute of Food Technologists

For More Information on Functional Foods for Health:


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