Reading the Label: Functional Foods


It is believed that foods with the addition of vitamins and minerals (functional foods) improve health, but is it true?

«Functional» products

These days, it’s hard to find a breakfast cereal without added vitamins and minerals. Take a look at the yogurt display case: there are all sorts of labels on their packages that talk about the addition of bacteria with the most bizarre names. On sale there are fruit drinks made from fresh fruits with the addition of yogurt, ice, sugar or syrup, with an extract of herbs, and even sweets that say they have added vitamin C.

There is nothing fundamentally new in adding vitamins and minerals to foods and drinks. In fact, some foods are required by law to add nutrients. For example, vitamins A and D are added to margarine in order to bring their content to the level of these vitamins in butter. The highest grade flour, from which bread is baked, loses minerals and vitamins during grinding: calcium, iron, vitamin B, and vitamin PP (nicotinic acid), therefore, after grinding the grain for flour, these vitamins are added to it. A similar tradition arose during the Second World War, when the nutritional value of foods was artificially increased in order to maintain the health of the population living on meager military rations. Today, nutrients are also added to baby milk to bring it closer in composition to breast milk.

Additional substances, the addition of which is left to the discretion of the manufacturers

In all other cases, the addition of nutrients to products is left to the discretion of the manufacturers, and usually they will not fail to label such a product so that you understand that their products are better. Products that have «added value» are usually referred to as «functional». Although in many countries of the world there is still no legal definition of the concept of «functional foods». They are usually referred to as foods that not only provide our body with essential nutrients, but also promote health.

«Functional» margarine

In some varieties of margarine, not only vitamins A and P are added, but also substances called stanoid and steroid esters of plant origin.

functional product margarineStanoid and steroid esters of plant origin occur naturally in some plants. Our digestive system does not absorb them, and they remain undigested. However, in the digestive system, they perform one important function: they can bind cholesterol and remove it from the body in the stool, lowering its level in the blood. In addition to margarines, plant-derived stanoid and steroid esters are also added to some yogurts.

Foods supplemented with these esters have been extensively researched and proven to reduce elevated blood cholesterol levels. That is why the following specific health information notice is acceptable on the labels of these products: “The product contains a unique ingredient, a plant-derived stanoid ester. Including it in a healthy diet may help lower blood cholesterol levels.”

«Functional» food: the experience of developed countries


Under US law, manufacturers of «functional» foods may only place their informational notice regarding health and that they are a preventative against disease on them when this can be confirmed by natural science research. There are currently 13 health informational notices approved in America for use on «functional foods» and dietary supplements.


In Japan, the market for «functional» foods is even more developed. Under Japanese law, manufacturers may only place specific informational remarks on a product label if the product is capable of curing serious diseases. It is clear from Japanese laws that the government of the country supports food products that do not have an «additional benefit» and advertise a healthy lifestyle, and expects that by stimulating the public’s interest in consuming such foods and drinks, they will be able to correct traditional eating habits and reduce healthcare costs.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, all «functional» foods and beverages that are granted special authorization to display a health information note (with the exception of certain specific health information notices) must follow basic health information notices.

Are functional foods good for us?

All dieticians agree on one thing: the consumption of certain foods and drinks that contain additives in the form of additional nutrients, beneficial (probiotic) bacteria, and standardized herbal extracts can be beneficial to health.

The main thing is that your diet is balanced. What’s the point of pouncing on a bag of sugary candy with added vitamin C when you can just eat an orange and get your vitamin C without the extra sugar?

Exceeding the norm of nutrients

Over-adding nutrients to foods can lead us to over-consume individual vitamins. Consider, for example, the situation with vitamin A. Pregnant women should be careful not to exceed the daily intake of 700 micrograms per day. And although the risk of birth defects in children whose mothers consumed a lot of vitamin A during pregnancy has been found for daily doses of its intake equal to 3300 micrograms, it is still better to stick to the norm and take no more than 700 micrograms. Otherwise, you can harm the health of the unborn child. Some nutrients, such as vitamin B6, D, nicotinic acid, and zinc, can be toxic when taken in excess of a safe amount.

Source: Adapted from How to Read Labels by Amanda Ursell

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