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Unlocking potential of functional foods
Wednesday, 20 September, 2023, 15 : 00 PM [IST]
Gowrishankar L
The awareness among people regarding the importance of functional food and beverages has increased in recent days. Instead of relying solely on medications, the majority of individuals have started adopting the use of functional foods. With the rising expenditure on pharmacy and the growing preference for natural foods, the food industry has prioritised the development of innovative technologies and ideas to meet people's desires.

There is a lack of clarity associated with the usage of specific ingredients that have the necessary functional activities, despite the fact that research, financing, and funding exist for technical advancements in functional food and beverages. A detailed guideline note on Food for Special Medical Purposes (FSMP) was released by FSSAI in 2020. In this correspondence, they claimed that, in accordance with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India's (Regulations, 2016) categorisation system, the approval of Non-Specified Food and Food Ingredients falls within FSMP. However, some products are categorised as nutritionally inadequate due to restrictions and a lack of supporting evidence on ingredient usage for particular FSMP formulations (FSMP, 2020 Guidance Note). FSSAI is solely responsible for providing information on FSMP products and has created regulations that include labelling, administration of functionally enhanced foods, dietary restrictions for vitamins and minerals, nutritional assistance from functional ingredients for specific illnesses, and more (Revised later for further improvement).  

Research on functionally enriched foods has increased substantially as a result of the growing interest and clarity surrounding the use of ingredients. According to recent studies, imbalanced food is prevalent in developed nations, and chronic diseases are an acute concern for people everywhere. In spite of this, numerous researchers are concentrating on innovative functional food and ingredients to solve these issues. The majority of functional food and its ingredients are designed to aid digestion, promote mineral absorption, increase immunological function, and enhance nutrient absorption. In these situations, the ingredients utilised in these foods are concentrated on offering therapeutic benefits, such as reducing inflammation, improving cognitive function, lowering cholesterol, and encouraging satiety by using fibre and Omega fatty acids. Even still, consumer approval of employing specific plant sterols, which lower cholesterol and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, is a problem for researchers. The impact of functional foods and their constituents on consumer health is significant. Will it influence current food industry products?

From an individual's perspective, people's preferences for functional food vary depending on their geographical location. In countries like India, there is a high demand for functional food products that include herbal extracts, traditional spices, and foods. This is because traditional foods in India are known to be rich in functional components such as dietary fibre from grains and vegetables, antioxidants from spices and other ingredients, and beneficial bacteria from yogurt and fermented products. Indian traditional foods offer a wide range of functional benefits, and each ingredient used carries significant functional properties. Functional ingredients are readily found in traditional foods across Asian countries.

The preferences of North Americans revolve around natural and organic functional foods. They have a strong preference for packaged foods that contain essential vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals. Research in this region focuses primarily on developing functional foods using plant-based ingredients. The current research direction centres around biomarkers and their utilisation. Biomarkers play a critical role in the development and evaluation of functional foods as they serve as indicators that measure biological processes, physiological changes, and the effects of interventions in the body. Their role in functional foods includes evaluating product efficiency and efficacy, monitoring potential adverse effects, understanding the mechanism of action, assessing metabolic profiles, monitoring compliance, and facilitating early detection and interventions.

In Europe, there is an emphasis on functional foods with specific health claims, and the regulatory framework differs from other regions. The European Food Safety Authority evaluates scientific evidence to assess the health claims made on food products. This approach aims to promote transparency and consumer trust in functional food products by relying on scientific evidence.

Similarly, in Asian countries and South America, there is a demand for functional ingredients sourced from traditional methods. People in these regions prefer foods that have active components promoting digestive health and supporting lifestyle management. They are also interested in developing functional beverages, such as herbal drinks and juices. There is a growing awareness of the benefits of incorporating superfoods like quinoa and chia seeds into their diets. Although preferences may vary at the regional and sub-regional levels, there is a predominant focus on nutritionally enriched foods. The scientific and regulatory communities associated with functional foods are actively disseminating knowledge about the benefits of functional foods beyond basic nutrition, even though there is no official definition in regulatory codes.

In Africa, the focus is on functional foods that address malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies. Fermented foods prepared from traditional grains, maize, and millet play a significant role in meeting nutritional requirements in many African countries. The demand for functional foods is not limited to developed nations, as developing nations also strive to address malnutrition issues. Sweet potatoes, due to their functional nutritional benefits and bioactive components, have seen a constant increase in consumption. Studies have explored the potential of sweet potatoes as functional foods, helping to bridge the knowledge gap regarding the consumption of traditional foods as functional foods.

In summary, functional foods contribute to the continuous improvement of human health. The shift in people's lifestyles from fast food and unhealthy choices towards the consumption of functional foods and traditional foods to meet their nutritional needs is evident. Daily consumption of functional foods can help prevent various diseases, including cardiovascular issues, diabetes, and obesity. Adequate utilisation of functional ingredients, packed with nutritional content, can transform regular foods into functional foods. The indispensable role of functional foods and their ingredients in individual daily life is well-established through various research endeavours.

The World Health Organization also promotes a healthy lifestyle by consuming nutritious food with regular physical exercise and balanced diet. A functional food is one of the greatest option to attain the specified lifestyle.

(The author is profeassor at Department of Food Technology, Bannari Amman Institute of Technology. He can be reached at
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