Functional Foods


Posted on 14 August 2018 by Makhosi Mahlangu


Foods contain major and minor components as well as bioactive compounds (e.g., antioxidants, peptides, carbohydrates, lipids, and glucosinolates) that are important for human nutrition. Consequently, their importance has initiated a surge of research and product development in the food industry.

Mopane worms 

In order to adapt to these consumer drivers and enhance the physiological functionality of inherent nutrients, the food industry is developing so-called “functional foods” a term that was first used in Japan. Indeed, the Japanese were the first to observe that food could play a role beyond gastronomic pleasure and nutrient supply to the human organism.

The average consumer prefers natural products over chemical versions since people want to eat food with the desired health benefits rather than take medicine separately. The increasing demand for functional foods can be explained by the increasing cost of healthcare, the steady increase in life expectancy, and the desire of older people for the improved quality of life. In many cases, it is believed that certain unprocessed or minimally processed foods have better health benefits than their processed counterparts. However, this assumption may not hold when considering particular phytochemicals, e.g., lycopene in tomato.

Dried vegetables

Food components with functional properties are extracted and used as additives in foodstuff due to their ability to provide both advanced technological properties and health claims to the final product. Epidemiological studies have shown that health benefits (e.g., reduced risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, diabetes, obesity, and cancer) may be attributed to the consumption of both macro- and micronutrients. For instance, macromolecules like soluble dietary fibres are known for their ability to lower blood lipid level and at the same time showing advanced gelling properties. Therefore it can be used to replace fat in foods, stabilize emulsions, and improve the shelf-life of food products.

Proteins have also been used as fat replacements in milk products, flavour enhancers in confectionaries, and as food and beverage stabilizers. Natural antioxidants typically include smaller compounds (e.g., polyphenols, carotenoids, tocopherols, and ascorbic acid) that have been connected to both nutritional (reduction of oxidative stress, prevention of cancer, arteriosclerosis, ageing processes) and functional (preservative of vegetable oils and emulsions) properties.

Functional foods now play a pivotal role in modern society.
Indigenous African Fruits

Other compounds of interest include glucosinolates and its derived forms (isothiocyanates), which are potent antimicrobials and have been associated with important health benefits (e.g., the reduction of degenerative diseases like cancers of the lungs and alimentary tract). Additionally, some of them can also flavour as unique flavourings (e.g., in mustards).