An initiative of :

Stichting Food-Info> Topics > Functional Foods

Functional Foods

The term “functional foods” refers to a food that provides a health benefit as well as nutrients. The term can refer to whole foods, to fortified, enriched or enhanced foods, and dietary supplements that have the potential to improve mental and physical well being and reduce the risk of diseases.

The ingredients responsible for this benefit can be naturally present or may have been added during processing. The levels of nutrients in foods can be increased beyond their natural levels to create an enriched product. Fortified products contain nutrients or ingredients that were not present in the original food.

Functional foods fall into several categories, see the table below :

Definitions of Functional Food Terms




Functional food

A normal type of food with an additional ingredient that provides a health benefit beyond satisfying traditional nutrient requirements. Examples are foods fortified with vitamins or calcium.

Foods for specified health use (FOSHU)

English translation of a Japanese classification of functional foods. The Japanese government defines FOSHU as “foods that are expected to have certain health benefits, and have been licensed to bear a label claiming that a person using them for a specified health use may expect to obtain the health use through the consumption thereof”. The classification or list has no status outside Japan.


A special functional food that of which medical and/or health benefits including prevention or treatment of disease are claimed.

Colonic food

Undigested food that reaches the colon, usually in the form of a non-digestible carbohydrate, and which provides nutrients for the intestinal microflora.


A food ingredient that improves the conditions in the large intestine beneficially for the host.


A mono or mixed culture of micro organisms that affect the host beneficially.

Medical food

A special classification of food dictated in US food law. It must be used under medical supervision for a disease, have well defined nutrient characteristics, be based on recognised scientific principles, and have undergone medical evaluation. Medical foods are not sold to normal consumers.


Click here for an overview of functional food ingredients.

The market for functional foods is growing rapidly all around to globe. Japan produces and consumes about one-half of this market, but the United States has the fastest rate of growth. The market for natural dairy products with probiotics, such as yoghurts and fermented milks, is growing rapidly in Europe . There are many reasons that these foods are becoming attractive to consumers:

  • Consumers want to prevent, rather than cure, disease.
  • Medical costs are rising.
  • Consumers are more aware of link between health and nutrition.
  • The population in industrialised nations is ageing.
  • Consumers want to counteract the perceived increase of environmental hazards from pollution, microbes and chemicals in air, water and food.
  • There is increasing scientific evidence of efficacy.


European countries do not have a legal definition for functional foods, nor do most European countries allow health claims for foods. The guiding principle seems to be that all food labels must not be misleading. To ensure that this principle is respected, the United Nations FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarus, the Council of Europe and national regulators are drafting codes allowing only “well-founded and justifiable” claims to be made. Only two types of statements or claims are allowed on food and dietary supplement labels,:

  • Structure and function claims describing effects on normal function of the body.
  • Disease risk reduction (health) claims, implying relationship between components in the diet and a disease or health condition.

More on :

References and further reading:

  2. Background on Functional Foods :
  3. Functional Foods : by Tanya Zilberter
  5. Mary Ellen Sanders, Overview of functional foods: emphasis on probiotic bacteria, Dairy and Food Culture Technologies 8 (1998), 341-347
  6. Louise A. Berner and Joseph A. O'Donnell, Functional foods and health claims legislation: applications to dairy products, Dairy and Food Culture Technologies 8 (1998), 355-362 is an initiative of Stichting Food-Info, The Netherlands

Free counters!