by Brittany Scanniello, RDN
Here at Supernola, we take a food as medicine approach, creating snacks made from nutrient-dense whole food ingredients powered by functional superfoods. You have likely seen, heard, read – basically any and all routes of communication right now - of so-called “functional foods” and how they claim to do everything from lowering blood pressure, reducing stress, providing immune support and even fighting cancer. Their popularity and availability seem to be growing and the benefits they are touting appeal to many. But what are they and what does science say?
What Are Functional Foods
Functional foods, also known as “nutraceuticals” or “designer foods” are foods containing supplements that are intended to improve health. The concept of functional foods originated in Japan in the 1980s when various government agencies (i.e. the FDA), started to approve specific label claims for foods with proven benefits to better health outcomes.
Functional foods cover a variety of foods and are generally separated into two categories: natural and modified.
Natural Functional Foods
Natural functional foods are whole food ingredients that are naturally rich in specific nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and omega-3 fats. Some favorites throughout the Supernola team include:
- Fruits: berries, pears, peaches, apples, bananas, pineapple
- Vegetables: broccoli, kale, spinach, beets
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, Brazil nuts
- Seeds: chia, flax
- Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, lentils
- Whole grains: oats, barley, quinoa, couscous
- Seafood: salmon, sardines, anchovies
- Fermented foods: tempeh, kombucha, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut
- Herbs and spices: turmeric, cinnamon, ginger
- Beverages: coffee, green tea, black tea
Modified Functional Foods
Modified functional foods refer to those foods that have been altered with additional ingredients to provide added health benefits (this usually consists of vitamin fortification, added fiber and probiotics). Here are some examples of modified functional foods:
- fortified juices (vitamin D fortified orange juice)
- fortified dairy and dairy-alternatives (vitamin D fortified milk)
- fortified grains (iron-fortified cereals)
- fortified eggs (eggs fortified with omega-3 fatty acids)
Now that we have covered what exactly the term “functional food” means, let’s discuss some of the key benefits highlighting immune support (given the year(s) we have all had as of late) to help set us up for success in the foods we choose and the health we promote.
Functional Foods and Immune Support
Your immune system is a complex network of cells, tissue and organs always working to protect you against infection and other disease. It is your job to keep it working as well as it possibly can. Nutrient status plays an important role in this. Undernutrition impairs the immune system, thus curbing immune functions that are fundamental to its day-to-day role in protection. Undernutrition can be due to insufficient intake of total calories, macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and/or due to deficiencies in specific vitamins and minerals.
Nutrients that have been demonstrated to be required for our immune systems to function efficiently include protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin E, Zn, Cu, Fe and Se.
Let’s breakdown a few of our favorite immune-supporting nutrients and why it is so critical to include them into your diet:
Vitamin C is an essential micronutrient. It is a potent antioxidant and is thought to promote the production of white blood cells, which are key in fighting infection. Vitamin C is considered essential, meaning your body does not produce or store it. Therefore, daily vitamin C is critical for immune support, especially during cold and flu season. The recommended daily amount (RDA) for adults is:
- 75 mg for women
- 90 mg for men
Foods highest in vitamin C include: citrus, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, strawberries, melon and potatoes. To note, if choosing to take a vitamin C supplement, do not take more than 500 milligrams (mg) at a time, not to exceed 2000 mg/day as our bodies have a hard time absorbing too much at one time and you will be nearing the Upper Tolerable Limit (UL).
Selenium is another essential nutrient that is important for reproduction, thyroid support, DNA production and supports against free radical damage. The RDA for adults is:
- 55 (micrograms) mcg
Selenium is naturally found in many foods including seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and whole grains. If eating a well-balanced diet that consists of the selenium-rich foods listed, you likely do not need additional supplementation. If concerned, it is always advised to consult with your healthcare provider to determine if a supplement is necessary. To note, the UL for selenium is 400 mcg/day for adults.
Zinc is found throughout our bodies. It is critical in helping our bodies fight off bacteria and viruses. The body requires zinc to make proteins and DNA – genetic material present in each and every cell. The RDA for adults is:
- 8 mg for women
- 11 mg for men
Lucky for us, zinc is found in a variety of foods. Oysters (the number 1 source of zinc), red meat, poultry and fortified breakfast cereals come in next. Other sources include beans, nuts, whole grains and dairy. Similar to selenium, if you are consuming a well-balanced diet, you are likely meeting your daily zinc requirements. One note to make is if following a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, you may want to review with your healthcare provider as when limiting meat, you are limiting high sources of the important mineral. The UL for zinc is 40 mg/day.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important components in each individual cell throughout our bodies. Specifically in eyes, brain, heart and lungs. There are three main omega-3 fatty acids. Those are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found primarily in plants such as flax, walnut and avocado. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found naturally in foods and are added to some foods as fortification. You can get adequate amounts of omega-3s by eating a variety of foods, including:
- Fish/Seafood (salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines)
- Nuts and Seeds (flax, chia, walnuts)
- Oils/Fats (olive, avocado)
- Fortified Foods (eggs, yogurt, juices, milk)
Protein throughout our bodies is made up of amino acids that join to form long chains. There are 20 different amino acids that go to form thousands of different proteins in every one of us. Proteins have many jobs; however, one we will highlight today is immune support and body turnover. Protein is essential for growth and tissue maintenance. During times of illness, your body is constantly breaking down proteins, to build and repair – think healing. In addition to body repair, proteins also help form immunoglobulins and antibodies that fight infection. When your body identifies a foreign invader (i.e. bacteria and viruses), your body produces antibodies that then attack and remove the invader. Without these antibodies, bacteria and viruses would be able to freely roam, multiply and takeover your body.
Protein is essential and plays many roles in our bodies. Specific to immune support, it keeps our immune systems strong and functioning properly.
Functional foods, while may be coined as a ‘marketing term’ is one that has been around for 30+ years, and is likely here to stay. The term makes sense. Various foods do have specific ‘functions’ when it comes to our health and well-being. Minimally processed, whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods, all fall into the same category when identifying those foods that provide a health benefit – a functional food. A well-rounded, healthy diet should be rich in a variety of functional foods both natural and modified. Aim to include nutrient-rich whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fats and lean proteins. These foods not only supply your body with the essential vitamins and minerals it needs to work properly, but also supports overall health and wellness to allow us to look and feel our best.
- Lang T. Functional foods. BMJ. 2007;334(7602):1015-1016.
- Calder PC, Kew S. The immune system: a target for functional foods? Br J Nutr. 2002 Nov;88 Suppl 2:S165-77.
- Carr AC, Maggini S. Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2017;9(11):1211.
- NIH.gov. Vitamin C
- NIH.gov. Selenium
- NIH.gov. Zinc
- NIH.gov. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Genton L, Pichard C. Protein catabolism and requirements in severe illness. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2011 Mar;81(2-3):143-52.
- Li P, Yin YL, Li D, Kim SW, Wu G. Amino acids and immune function. Br J Nutr. 2007 Aug;98(2):237-52.
Our superfood snacking clusters combine function and flavor, together in one nutrient-dense, flavor-packed bite. Try all 6 flavors and stock up on health-boosting snacks for the winter!