Background on Functional Foods

Click here for a PDF version of this document, which includes a chart of functional components, their corresponding food sources, potential health benefits and tips for how to include them in your diet. 

Did you know that certain foods or food components may provide health and wellness benefits? These foods, also known as “functional foods,” may play a role in improving overall well-being and reducing or minimizing the risk of certain diseases and other health conditions. Examples of these foods include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fortified foods and beverages and some dietary supplements. Functional characteristics of many traditional foods are being discovered and studied, while new food products are being developed to include beneficial components. By knowing which foods can provide specific health benefits, you can make food and beverage choices that allow you to take greater control of your health.


Consumer interest in the relationship between diet and health has increased the demand for information about functional foods. Factors fueling U.S. interest in these foods include the rapid advances in science and technology, increasing healthcare costs, changes in food laws affecting label and product claims, an aging population and rising interest in attaining wellness through diet, among others.

Health Claims
According to IFIC consumer research, Americans name the media, health professionals, and family and friends as their top sources of information about foods that can promote health. Credible scientific research indicates there are many clinically proven and potential health benefits from food components. Claims on food packages are just one vehicle for informing consumers about these diet and health relationships. In the US, the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act authorized the Food and Drug Administration to create regulations for the use of health claims on foods and dietary supplements. Benefits that are substantiated by scientific research are often communicated to consumers through the product packaging, websites or advertising. Such health-related statements or claims are made according to the applicable regulations and guidelines of the FDA and Federal Trade Commission.

Many academic, scientific and regulatory bodies have developed, or are developing, guidelines to establish the scientific evidence base needed to support and further validate claims for functional components or the foods containing them. FDA regulates food products according to their intended use and the nature of claims made on the package. Five types of health-related statements or claims are allowed on food and dietary supplement labels:

  1. Nutrient content claims indicate the presence of a specific nutrient at a certain level.
  2. Structure and function claims describe the effect of dietary components on the normal structure or function of the body.
  3. Dietary guidance claims describe the health benefits of broad categories of foods or diets and do not refer to a disease or a health related condition.
  4. Qualified health claims convey a developing relationship between components in the diet and reduced risk of disease, as reviewed by the FDA and supported by the weight of credible scientific evidence available.
  5. Health claims confirm a relationship between components in the diet and reduced risk of disease or health condition, as approved by FDA and supported by significant scientific agreement.

The scientific community continues to increase its understanding of the potential for functional foods and their role in maintaining and optimizing health.  For benefits to be validated and claims to be made, a strong and reliable body of credible scientific research is needed to confirm the benefits of any particular food or component.  For functional foods to deliver their potential public health benefits, consumers must be able to rely on the scientific criteria that are used to document such health statements and claims.

Nutrigenomics/ “Personalized Nutrition”
As scientific and technological advances develop in the field of health and nutrition, more focus has been directed toward the emerging field of nutrigenomics, or “personalized nutrition.”  The science of nutrigenomics involves the application of the human genome to nutrition and personal health to provide individual dietary recommendations.  By using an individual’s unique genetic makeup and nutritional requirements to tailor recommendations, consumers may one day have a greater ability to reduce their risk of disease and optimize their health.

Personalizing nutrition to an individual’s unique genetic makeup has the potential for positive health outcomes overall.  Choosing an individualized approach, over a more traditional or general approach, to health and nutrition recommendations can provide consumers with the most appropriate and beneficial information for their specific nutritional needs.  While personalized nutrition seems promising, research is still in the preliminary stages, and years may pass before accurate and effective recommendations can be made for individuals.  

Functional foods/foods for health are an important part of an overall healthful lifestyle that includes a balanced diet and physical activity.  People should strive to consume a wide variety of foods, including the examples listed here.  These examples are not "magic bullets."  The best advice is to include a variety of foods, as recommended by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and, which would provide many potentially beneficial components.