Omega-3-infused cranberries, green tea-augmented coffee, probiotic-boosted candy: Welcome to the age of functional foods. Not that enhancing foods with nutrients is new. As far back as the 1920s, manufacturers were adding iodine to salt to counter goiter. Later, our government mandated adding vitamin D to milk to stave off rickets and folic acid to whole grains to prevent birth defects. Today we buy iron-fortified cereal and calcium-enriched orange juice. Although fortifying foods was once more malady specific, recent developments in food engineering, a plethora of new ingredients, and a growing awareness of nutrition's role in health have given fresh reason to explore the “functional” category, explains Lisa Marshall in “What's Fortifying Your Food?” (page 20). In fact, the Nutrition Business Journal recently estimated that functional foods generated 76 percent of total sales in the $10 billion healthy kids' market in 2008.

In particular, nutritionally pumped foods may help if you're on a restricted diet, as dictated by conditions such as food allergies or diabetes — or if your body simply has a genetic disposition toward certain nutrients. Nutrigenomics, an emerging field of nutrition science, can help you find out (see “Food and Your Genes,” page 46). Developed by Jeffrey Bland, PhD, CNS, this technique combines information about your DNA with insight on how your body processes the foods you eat — for instance, whether it utilizes folic acid or overresponds to cholesterol — to pinpoint whether you might benefit from supplements, specific fortified foods, or other dietary adjustments.

Of course, while functional foods have their place, experts agree that for most of us the best way to obtain vitamins and minerals is to eat whole foods — natural and organic, unprocessed foods. And you have no excuse not to in July, when the bounty is plentiful! Whether you're a raw foodie or not, you'll be wowed by raw-food guru Ani Phyo's recipes in “Classy Raw Cuisine,” page 26. These meals taste so wonderfully fresh and satisfying that I suggest not telling your dinner guests the meal is raw, and see if they notice.

By definition

  • Enrichment: Replacing nutrients stripped out during food processing. For instance, B vitamins and minerals are lost when flour is processed, so companies are required to “enrich” white flour with such nutrients.
  • Fortification: Adding nutrients to foods that do not naturally contain those nutrients. For instance, milk is fortified with the vitamin D it does not contain to help the body better absorb the calcium it naturally has.
  • Functional: A catch-all phrase referring to foods and ingredients billed as having certain health benefits.

WHAT’S IN YOUR FOOD?

Omega-3 essential fatty acids

What are they Polyunsaturated fatty acids, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish and algae, ALA in walnuts, ground flaxseed, hemp, soybean, and canola.

Recommended amount: 1 gram daily.

Which foods do they fortify? Orange juice, pasta, bread, dairy products, eggs, margarine spreads, baby formula.

Why are they good for you? The strongest health claims relate to heart health, with dozens of studies showing omega-3s’ anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting effects, and that omega-3s can lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels and slow the thickening of artery walls. One landmark study of 11,324 heart attack patients found those given 1 gram daily of omega-3s had up to a 20 percent reduction in risk of having another heart attack. New research has linked omega-3s to a lower risk of certain cancers, neurological disorders, and depression, and to healthy cognitive development in infants.

Consider: Most research has focused on DHA and EPA, so look for fish- or algae-derived forms, says University of Maine Food Science and Nutrition Professor Mary Ellen Camire, PhD. Only about 5 percent of ALA can be converted to DHA or EPA, and ALA’s overall health benefits are unclear. If you are taking blood thinners, use omega-3s in moderation, since they also thin blood. And if you take weight control products or fiber, eat omega 3s separately, since both may interfere with absorption.

Probiotics

What are they?Beneficial microorganisms that boost health by balancing intestinal flora and keeping harmful bugs in check. Certain strains such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli occur in cultured dairy products.

Recommended amount:Between 100 million and 1 billion colony forming units (CFUs) daily.

Which foods do they fortify? Functional dairy products, such as yogurt or kefir, with “live and active cultures;”cereals; and snack bars.

Why are they good for you? Different strains offer unique benefits: Some have been shown to fend off gastrointestinal problems such as loose stools and nausea. One recent review of 18 studies found that treatment with probiotics significantly shortened the duration of diarrhea in children. Other strains modulate the immune system, helping control or reduce allergies and fight off infection. And some have been shown to reduce cholesterol.

Consider: If you are taking probiotics for a specific health purpose, consult a knowledgeable health-care provider or educate yourself about which strains are appropriate for you. If you’re immunity is compromised due to chemotherapy or illness, check with your doctor.

Fiber

What is it?Plant fibers, which occur naturally in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, that pass undigested through the digestive tract. There are two kinds: Insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water, and soluble fiber, which dissolves in water to form a gel-like consistency.

Recommended amount: 14 grams for each 1,000 calories consumed, or 21–38 grams daily.

Which foods does it fortify? Natural and synthetic fiber additives (derived from plants or sucrose) are most common in cereals, snack bars, yogurt, and baking mixes.

Why is it good for you? Fiber has been shown to boost laxation, quell appetite, moderate blood sugar levels, and promote gastrointestinal health by providing food (prebiotics) to probiotics. Studies suggest fiber can also lower total and LDL cholesterol and boost heart health by interfering with fat absorption. One recent analysis found that cardiovascular disease risk was 10 percent to 30 percent lower for each 10 grams per day of fiber that men and women ate.

Consider: For elimination regularity, look for insoluble cereal fibers like bran. For digestive health and enhanced calcium absorption, look for inulin, a prebiotic derived from chicory root. For cholesterol-lowering effects, research shows that soluble gooey fibers like those in oatmeal and barley work best. Note: Too much fiber can lead to gas, bloating, and diarrhea, so spread your intake out over the day.

Plant stanols and sterols

What are they?Components of fruit and vegetable plant membranes shown to lower cholesterol. New food-processing techniques have made it possible to extract and infuse them into products.

Recommended amount: 1.3–3.4 grams, over two meals.

Which foods do they fortify? Spreads, salad dressings, breads, and potato chips.

Why are they good for you? Stanols are believed to compete with cholesterol and keep it from being absorbed into the bloodstream. Studies have shown that consuming 1.8–2.8 grams of sterols/stanols per day for four weeks to three months can lower total cholesterol by 7 percent to 11 percent.

Consider: Be sure you are getting enough. Spreading mayo with stanols on your sandwich or eating a bag of stanol-rich potato chips won’t likely make a significant impact. Two cups of fortified orange juice or two tablespoons of fortified margarine supply an adequate amount.

Antioxidants

What are they? Natural compounds in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that fight free-radical damage from sun, age, and environmental toxins. Examples include vitamins A, C, and E; beta carotene; lutein; and lycopene. Colorful foods like carrots, cherries, blueberries, grapes, and tomatoes are rich in antioxidants.

Recommended amount: 2 grams per day from all sources, combined.

Which foods do they fortify? Common in fortified juices, cereals, and chocolate snacks.

Why are they good for you? Specific antioxidants have been linked to specific benefits. For instance, lutein boosts eye health; lycopene may lower prostate cancer risk; and increasing evidence suggests antioxidants in grapes, cocoa, blueberries, and teas may reduce your chances of developing cardiovascular or Alzheimer’s disease.

Consider: Antioxidants have a synergistic effect, so the best way to eat them is together, as they occur in real food. Excess of some can have side effects: Too much vitamin E can lead to fatigue and intestinal cramping, and vitamin C can cause diarrhea. Overdoing it on antioxidants in whole food is unlikely, but the National Academy of Science recommends no more than 2,000 milligrams per day of vitamin C from food and supplements, and 1,000 milligrams per day of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol). “You don’t have to have a lot to have an impact,” says Camire.

A freelance health writer and mother of four, Lisa Marshall lives in Estes Park, Colorado.