Concept and Definition

The concept of functional foods derives from the observation that certain foods and beverages exert beneficial effects on human health that are not explained by their nutritional content (i.e., macronu-trients, vitamins, and minerals). The definition of functional foods varies among countries for reasons that are historical, cultural, and regulatory. In its broadest use, functional foods are food-derived products that, in addition to their nutritional value, enhance normal physiological or cognitive functions or prevent the abnormal function that underlies disease. A hierarchy of restrictions narrows the definition. In most countries, a functional food must take the form of a food or beverage, not a medication, and should be consumed the way a conventional food or beverage is consumed. If the ingredients are incorporated into pills, sachets, or other dosage forms they are considered dietary supplements or nutraceuticals, not functional foods. In Japan and Australia, the functional food appellation has been applied only to food that is modified for the purpose of enhancing its health benefits; in China, Europe, and North America, any natural or preserved food that enhances physiological function or prevents disease might be considered a functional food. If food is modified, there is lack of international consensus as to whether a vitamin or mineral-enriched food (e.g., folate-fortified flour or calcium-fortified orange juice) should be considered a functional food, or whether functional foods are described by the presence of their nonnutritive components (e.g., fiber or polyphenols). Future development of functional foods is likely to be driven by scientific research rather than government regulation, so it is likely that the concept (if not the definition) of functional foods will remain fluid and flexible.

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