Nutraceuticals, Functional Foods, Phytochemicals... Health-Protecting Foods

Last Editorial Review: 7/9/2002

The healing power of foods is a popular concept that focuses on how "super foods" can have health-protecting properties. Medicinal foods or "nutritionally high powered foods" have been in the natural products industry for a long time and through emerging scientific research and, particularly, public interest have reached the mainstream.

The primary terms associated with this new health-protecting category of food ingredients are nutraceuticals, functional foods and phytochemicals. (Previously, the active components of fruits and vegetables were classified as vitamins, minerals and such.) This important new terminology is described below.

Nutraceuticals is a term coined by Stephen DeFelice, M.D., founder and chairman of the private, nonprofit Foundation for Innovation in Medicine, Cranford, NJ, a decade ago. A nutraceutical is "any substance that may be considered a food or part of a food and provides medicinal or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease." A nutraceutical may be a naturally nutrient- rich food such as spirulina, garlic, soy or a specific component of a food like omega 3 oil from salmon.

Functional foods, as defined by the Institute of Medicine in Washington, are "those foods that encompass potentially healthful products including any modified food or ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains." Functional foods can include foods like cereals, breads and beverages which are fortified with vitamins, herbs or nutraceuticals.

The term phytochemical is a fairly recent term that emphasizes the plant source of some of these health-protecting compounds. Currently, the terms "phytochemical" and "phytonutrient" are being used interchangeably to describe the active components of plants. Scientists are examining the antioxidant, immune-boosting and other health-promoting properties of active compounds in plants. Phytonutrients or phytochemicals that are being studied presently include (and are not limited to) terpenes, carotenoids, limonoids, and phytosterols.

It has been well appreciated for years that diet influences many health conditions and diseases. It is becoming clearer that maintaining optimal health can be affected by dietary factors. The terms defined here will predictably become more a part of our daily lives as foods and food products are marketed according to their potential health benefits and our dietary decisions are made for the benefit of our health.

For more, please visit the Healthy Living Center.

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