'Functional foods' can help keep your body healthy


Functional foods: What are they? Foods that may have health benefits beyond the traditional nutrients that they contain are often called "functional foods."

The concept of functional foods has become popular in recent years, first in Japan and later in other countries, including the U.S.

In the U.S., the term "functional foods" has no official, accepted definition. Foods don't have to pass any test or meet any standard in order to be described "functional."

In the U.S., the best way to find out whether a food has any scientifically established health benefits beyond basic nutrition is to look for a special type of statement called a "health claim" on the food label. Health claims must be pre-approved by the Food and Drug Administration before they can be used.

The American Council on Science and Health classifies the strength of the scientific evidence for the benefits of various functional foods currently on the market as follows:

1. Very Strong: whole oat products (lowered cholesterol levels and reduced heart disease risk), foods containing psyllium (lowered cholesterol levels and reduced heart disease risk), whole soy foods and foods made with soy protein (lowered cholesterol levels and reduced heart disease risk), special fortified margarine made with plant stanol or sterol esters (lowered cholesterol levels and reduced heart disease risk), sugarless chewing gums and candies made with sugar alcohols (do not promote tooth decay). The FDA has approved health claims for all of these products.

2. Strong: fatty fish containing omega-3 fatty acids (reduced risk of heart disease).

3. Moderate: cranberry juice (reduced risk of urinary tract infection), organosulfur compounds in garlic (lowered cholesterol levels).

4. Weak to Moderate: green tea (reduced cancer risk), lycopene in tomatoes and tomato products (reduced risk of some types of cancer, especially prostate cancer).

5. Weak: dark-green leafy vegetables containing lutein (reduced risk of macular degeneration), meats and dairy products containing conjugated linoleic acid (various health benefits), cruciferous vegetables (reduced cancer risk), probiotics (beneficial effects on gastrointestinal function and immunity).

Safety concerns have been raised about some functional foods, especially foods containing added medicinal herbs. Concerns have also been raised about the possibility that the promotion of functional foods may mislead people into thinking that eating them is more important than choosing a balanced diet or taking other steps to prevent or treat health problems. Exaggerated claims for some functional foods and inconsistent regulations may contribute to consumer confusion.

Consumers need to be cautious and skeptical when evaluating claims made for functional food products. ACSH recommends that consumers who are interested in incorporating functional foods into a healthy lifestyle should first consider products that carry FDA-approved health claims. These foods have been convincingly demonstrated to be beneficial for their intended purposes when consumed as part of a generally well-balanced and healthful diet. Consumers who wish to try functional foods that do not carry FDA-approved health claims should realize that there is no substantial proof that these foods have the special benefits claimed for them.

Functional foods are only one aspect of diet, and diet is only one aspect of a comprehensive lifestyle approach to good health, which should include regular exercise, tobacco avoidance, maintenance of a healthy body weight, stress reduction and other positive health practices.

Functional foods can sometimes be part of an effective strategy to promote good health, but they should never be considered a substitute for other good health habits, and they should never be used instead of medically prescribed therapy for any health problem.

Baked Vegetable Medley

1 cup eggplant (cubes); 1 cup okra (slices); 1 cup corn; cup small mushrooms; 1 onion -slices; vegetable cooking spray; 11-ounce can condensed cream of celery soup; cup water; salt and pepper to taste (optional); 1 slice bread (finely crumbled)

Combine all vegetables in baking dish coated with vegetable cooking spray. Blend condensed soup and water; add salt and pepper. Pour over vegetables. Top with bread crumbs. Cook at 325 degrees F. for 25 to 30 minutes, or until hot, and crumbs are golden brown. Yield: 8 servings

Zucchini Wedges

4 small zucchini; 2 teaspoons oil; 2 teaspoons onion (grated); 1 cube beef bouillon; 2 tablespoons boiling water

Cut zucchini in half lengthwise. Add oil to skillet. Add onion and bouillon cube-mixing together; stir to blend. Place zucchini in skillet with cut side down. Saute until golden brown. Add boiling water; cover. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes, or until tender. Yield: 4 servings