A functional food is one that has something added to it which should be beneficial to health.
One of the earliest examples of this was the addition of calcium or flour.
These additions are considered to be beneficial to the population or particular section of the population and have been based upon independent evidence.
Although it has been common practice for many years to add a range of vitamins and minerals – such as Iron & B vitamins – to breakfast cereals, the range of functional foods produced by individual manufacturers have increased greatly and now include amongst others:
• Plant stanol spreads
• Foods with pre and probiotics. These are often in the form of yoghurt and yoghurt drinks
• Fruit squash with added vitamins
• Foods with added omega 3 oils.
As functional foods are a food and not a supplement or drug they are not covered by strict legislation ensuring that any health benefits claimed are true; hence leaving room for potential cynical marketing.
For example a food may have added vitamins and minerals, but it could still be a poor quality product high in salt, sugar and / or fat. A balanced diet will provide all the vitamins and minerals you require, whilst keeping sugar, salt and fat to minimal amounts.
There is a rightful place for well researched and proven functional foods, however due to the lack of adequate legislation & abundant advertising it can be difficult to tell the useful from the useless.