Nutrition Meets Food Science


What are functional foods?

Foods that offer consumers additional physiological benefits in addition to basic nutrition are referred to as ‘Functional foods.’ Basically, eating gives your body the nutrition it needs to be functioning. However, some foods contain components that can strengthen your body’s systems so they perform better than usual and provide health benefits. These foods can be termed as functional foods. Functional foods don’t necessarily need to naturally contain beneficial substances; they may be naturally present or added during production for example; infant’s milk powder is fortified with DHA. 

The phrase was initially used in Japan in the 1980s, where a government-approved program for functional food known as Food for Specified Health Use (FOSHU) exists. 

Types and their overall health benefits:

There are now many functional foods available worldwide. Foods that improve immunity, contain protein-rich components, are anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, contain probiotics, and work as nutritional supplements, are some examples of functional foods. The examples below are given because they each demonstrate a different aspect of this expanding field and can be widely used in Indian diets. 


The FDA came to an understanding that soy protein, when consumed as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may lower blood cholesterol levels, hence minimizing the risk of coronary heart disease. Iso-flavonoids, a class of oestrogen-like substances, are also present in soy. The modulation of circulating lipid levels and cancer risk may be influenced by these iso-flavonoids, notably genistein, and daidzein, which have antioxidant capabilities. 

Additionally, there is some evidence to support the idea that isoflavones consumed from soy products or soy protein products like isolates and concentrates undergo biotransformation by intestinal bacteria before being absorbed into the bloodstream and influencing endogenous oestrogen levels. Numerous, hormonal and nonhormonal activities that these phytoestrogens and their metabolites have may help to explain some of the biological impacts of diets high in phytoestrogens.

Oat Bran Fibre (Beta Glucan):

The individual components of dietary fibre, such as cellulose, hemicellulose, pectin, and lignin, are classed as soluble or insoluble. The first health claim authorized by the US Dietary Supplement Health Education Act (DSHEA) in the 1990s concerned the use of the soluble fibre in oat bran, called Beta-glucan in the reduction of cardiovascular risk. It has now been demonstrated that soluble fibre consumption lowers LDL cholesterol levels through a number of mechanisms that change how the body processes cholesterol and glucose. Increased faecal bile acid excretion and interference with bile acid reabsorption are believed to be the mechanisms of action. In addition, short-chain fatty acids and gases are produced as a result of the intestinal microflora’s fermentation of fibre in the colon. In addition to providing energy for the cells of the colonic mucosa, the creation of these short-chain fatty acids has also been linked to lower serum cholesterol and a lower risk of cancer.

Prebiotics and Probiotics:

Prebiotics are ‘ingestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth or activity or both, of one bacterium or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, thus improving the host’s health.’ Whereas, Probiotics are ‘live microbial food supplement that beneficially affects the host by improving its intestinal microbial balance.’ There are certain criteria for microbes to be classified as probiotics. The probiotic strains must be (i) sufficiently characterized; (ii) safe for the intended use; (iii) supported by at least one positive human clinical trial conducted according to generally accepted scientific standards; and (iv) alive in sufficient numbers in the product at an efficacious dose throughout shelf life; (v) it should be able to withstand stomach pH and its acidic environment; (vi) lastly, the organism should be able to lodge in large intestine i.e., it should have the capacity to attach there and thrive in that environment. 

Research on probiotics and prebiotics is still in progress, and one area of interest is how they work to increase immune regulation and disease resistance, protect against gastrointestinal diseases, and lower cholesterol levels. For instance, it has been proven that fermented milk like curd/buttermilk/yogurt increases the bacterial population in human intestines which ferments indigestible carbohydrates obtained from meals. Increased short-chain fatty acid generation from this type of fermentation lowers the levels of circulatory cholesterol by either preventing the synthesis of hepatic cholesterol or by transferring plasma cholesterol to the liver. More research has revealed that some probiotics may reduce faecal quantities of enzymes, mutagens, and secondary bile salts that may contribute to colon cancer.

Fish oil fatty acids:

Fish and fish oil fatty acids have drawn attention due to their potential benefits in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease. Since many years ago, it has been understood that omega-3 fatty acids, which are mostly contained in fish oil, are crucial for maintaining the integrity of the neurological system, especially during development. There are several conditions in which omega-3 fatty acids have shown potential benefits including diseases like coronary heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, and several types of cancer. The possible mechanism is due to its anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombotic effects and by inhibiting atherosclerosis and production of tumour-promoting factors. Algae that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include seaweed, spirulina, nori, and chlorella. Due to the fact that they are plant-based sources of EPA and DHA, these foods are particularly crucial for vegans and certain vegetarians to consume. Nori adds a wonderful umami taste to homemade maki rolls. To create the most stunning smoothie bowls, you can buy spirulina and chlorella powders and supplements. You can even add them into other recipes, such pancakes, without changing the flavour.

Herbs and Spices:

Being the world’s greatest producer and user of herbs and spices, India is the origin of many of these products. 

Dimethylfuran acids are a class of insignificant lipid fraction components with antioxidant capabilities that have been found in numerous herbs. Some of the active components in spices like turmeric, black pepper, asafoetida, coriander, and garlic include capsaicin, eugenol, and curcumin. While Bixa Orellana L. in common terms known as Annatto seeds are recognized for being a source of food colour, other plant parts are also said to have antiperiodic, antipyretic, diuretic, hypotensive, and hypo-glycaemic properties. One or more of these effects is thought to be caused by the presence of carotenoids, flavonoids, tannins, amino acids, and minute amounts of alkaloids. One of the main ingredients in turmeric is curcumin, which has long been utilized as an anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and naturally occurring medication. Prostaglandin synthesis inhibition is another explanation for this action.

Ginger and Garlic: Both form a base for basic Indian curry preparations. In addition to promoting digestion and absorption, the active ingredients in ginger, such as phenolic and terpene compounds, help treat flatulence and constipation by boosting the muscle activity of the digestive system. In line with reports, ginger is effective at treating rheumatism and inflammation by inhibiting the production of the inflammation’s metabolites prostaglandin and leukotriene. 

Speaking of garlic, it is one of the first recorded instances of a plant being used to treat illness and maintain health. Allicin, the primary bioactive ingredient in garlic, has been associated with a range of health advantages. It is well known for its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant capabilities, making it a natural ally for boosting our immune systems.

Fenugreek seeds: It is one of India’s most significant and well-known traditional medicinal plants. Dietary administration of even 1-2% of fenugreek seeds has remarkably shown to increase the glutathione levels in the body which works as an antioxidant. Additionally, it also has a hypolipidemic effect in hypercholesterolemic. 

It also has chemo-preventive effects by decreasing lipid peroxidation. In both animal and human trials, isolated fenugreek fractions have demonstrated hypo-glycaemic and hypo-cholesterolaemic effects. These beneficial effects are thought to be the result of fenugreek’s high saponin concentration and particular dietary fibre composition.

As stated earlier, packaged food and beverages that contain added health ingredients and/or nutrients, where fortification and enhancements are intended to produce a nutritional benefit are also considered as Functional foods. 

But why is there a need for food fortification? 

According to the recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5):

  • 67.1% of children (6-59 months) are anaemic
  • 52.2 % of women in the reproductive age group (15-49 years) are anaemic
  • 32.1 % of children under 5 are underweight 
  • Of age 15 years and above, 21.3% of women and 24% of males have elevated blood pressure. (Systolic ≥140 mm of Hg and/or Diastolic ≥90 mm of Hg)

India dropped from its 2020 position of 94th to 101st on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021 of 116 countries. In order to address micronutrient malnutrition or deficiency, fortification is necessary.


Everyone wants to live a healthy life and as rightly said, ‘Prevention is better than cure’. It makes sense that people’s attention is changing from medical care for illness to a proactive strategy for disease prevention so they can stay well. New food products that have been shown to be beneficial in preventing diseases in human studies can help people stay healthy and prevent disease. For example, the practice of fortification of common table salt with iodine and wheat with iron to prevent diseases like goitre and anaemia respectively was done with the specific aim of prevention of these diseases. Nowadays, it’s normal practice to add omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils to eggs, bread, baked products, or folic acid added to breakfast cereals, and baked beans or fruit juices enhanced with vitamin C, probiotic strains added to milk and yogurt with the goal of increasing the nutritional value of these staple foods.

Apart from these, there are several other food products that come under Functional foods. India has a distinct diet and uses medicinal plants. However, many traditional Indian meals are regarded as functional foods because of their high content of elements that have a functional impact on our health. A number of factors will determine if functional foods are viable and successful in the future like their affordability, taste, texture, preparation methods, availability, etc. 


Ms. Simran Vichare

Nutritionist, PFNDAI

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