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Functional Foods: An Intro to Nutraceuticals

By Eric Mink

Walk into any supermarket, and you'll be bombarded by a dizzying array of packaged products, many touting new and expanded formulas guaranteed to make you thinner, healthier, even smarter. "Low fat," "all natural," "trans-fat free," "organic," and "calcium-enriched" are only a few of the buzzwords listed in bright bold colors on shiny boxes.

But unless you're a trained nutritionist, you'll probably have a hard time knowing the difference between foods that will actually benefit your health and foods that will only fatten the wallets of the companies that market them. While you probably already know you should steer clear of foods with a list of ingredients five feet long and reach for some whole grains and veggies, you might also want to make sure you toss in a few good, well-vetted nutraceuticals for good measure.


What's a Nutraceutical?
Over the past decade, food scientists and the food industry have created the "nutraceuticals" category to describe foods that have both nutritional and pharmaceutical attributes. The Nutraceuticals Institute at Rutgers University defines nutraceuticals as "natural, bioactive chemical compounds that have health promoting, disease preventing or medicinal properties."

While the word is new, this is hardly a new concept. After all, it was Hippocrates who said, "Let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food." Also more commonly known as "functional foods," nutraceuticals are foods or food products that have demonstrated physiological benefits beyond their basic nutritional functions. Note the stress on the word "demonstrated": The FDA does not necessarily study or approve these foods, so you need to do your research before you started ingesting them on a whim. That said, don't throw the good eats out with the bad apples. Ingested in the right amounts (and at the right times during the day), many nutraceuticals offer big benefits that will give you a performance boost in your workouts and your everyday life.

Nutraceuticals Categories
Since the FDA does not formally screen and regulate nutraceuticals, the categories of nutraceuticals can be somewhat wide-ranging. The Institute of Nutraceuticals Research at Clemson University has narrowed it down by establishing the following list of nutraceutical categories:

  1. Dietary Supplements: Includes vitamins, minerals, co-enzyme Q, carnitine, and multi-mineral formulas
  2. Botanicals: Includes gingseng, gingko biloba, saw palmetto, and other plant-based supplements
  3. Functional Foods: Include oats, bran, cereals, and grains (known to prevent heart disease and colon cancer); yogurts and other probiotics (known to control intestinal flora); Omega-3-rich products like salmon (known to prevent heart disease); canola and other oils with lowered triglycerides (known to reduce cholesterol); plant stanols found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and nuts (known to reduce cholesterol adsorption); and enriched food products (food products enriched with vitamins, minerals, and so on)
  4. Medicinal Foods: Includes transgenic plants (plants taken orally that are known to prevent infectious diseases; as well as food products enriched with medicines
So which ones should you look into? The most obvious and safe nutraceuticals are functional food products. Many food products are naturally occurring nutraceuticals. Other categories such as dieterary supplements and botanicals may be more risky; some botanicals, for example, have been shown to interfere with medications or have serious side effects. Also, buyer beware that many foods and supplements that claim to be nutraceuticals are simply marketing scams aimed at a public eager for alternative medicines and fast-acting remedies. Before you take any new nutraceuticals, check with your doctor to make sure they won’t negatively affect your health.

Practical Applications: Enhancing Your Diet with Functional Foods
So what does all this mean for you? Well, first it means that you should continue to educate yourself about the amazing secondary physiological benefits of many of the foods you eat. If you're already eating a well-balanced diet, you probably ingest many nutraceuticals in your everyday eating without even knowing it. If not, you don't need to radically change your eating habits to include many of the proven nutraceuticals that even the FDA agrees are good for you. Below, we’ve listed a few recommended, sure thing getting started points for the nutraceutical newbie:
  1. Eat Your Oatmeal: Oatmeal is considered the oldest nutraceutical in the book because it was the first product to offer an explicit health claim listed on the label of a food product: lowering cholesterol and reducing the incidence of heart disease. To get oats and whole grains in your diet, add oatmeal to your breakfast in the morning, and make mid-day and post-workout snack mixes with oats, nuts, and raisins.
  2. Use Spreads with Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acid: Spreads like Benecol and Smart Balance offer a great alternative to butter and other spreads high in saturated fats. These spreads contain a mixture of healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats and provide a favorable balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower LDL (also known as "bad") cholesterol levels. Cook with these healthy spreads instead of butter or add them to your whole grain toast.
  3. Drink Whole Fruit and Veggie Juice Blends (like Naked and Odwalla): Naked and Odwalla brand juice blends offer a variety of products that fit the nutraceutical label. Their soy protein blends contain antioxidants and phytochemicals to reduce cancer risk and promote a healthy heart. Other juice blends, such as Green Machine, offer a pound of fruits and vegetables as well as a mixture of energy-promoting botanicals. Add these drinks to your post-workout regimen, in addition to 20 grams of protein, for a quick and nutritious alternative to fast foods. Just be aware that fruit juices are high in sugar (albeit natural sugars), so be careful how much you consume to prevent sugar spiking.
  4. Pack Some "Good" Energy or Meal Replacement Bars: The energy or meal replacement bar category is so swamped by products that it is hard to find the healthful choices among the sugary and heavily manufactured ones. For starters, chose bars that do not have sugar or synthetic sweeteners in the first three ingredients. Also make sure they contain less than three grams of saturated fats. Some of the best choices include simple ingredients such as whole grains, nuts, and whey protein. New entrants into this space include bars with only natural ingredients, such as Lara Bar, Cliff Bar, and Omega-3 Uplift Bar. Eat these bars with an orange as a pre-workout energy boost.
Additional Resources
  1. Natural Products Association
  2. Functional Foods Backgrounder
  3. Fit Fare: Are Functional Foods Feasible?
About Eric Mink: A former professional athlete, Eric Mink is the founder of a sports performance clinic specializing in power training and nutrition for athletes. For the past ten years, Eric Mink has trained and conditioned hundreds of clients with wide ranging goals and skill levels. As a freelance writer, Mink has written analytical reports on the pharmaceuticals and nutritional supplement industries, as well as a range of articles in the areas of sports-specific training and rehab, nutrition, and training theory and practice.