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Functional foods exert a specific health-beneficial effect
Monday, 30 December, 2019, 13 : 00 PM [IST]
S N Jamdar and S K Ghosh
Food being used as therapeutic is not a new concept. Hippocrates, the father of medicine has rightly said 2,500 years ago, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” and with increase in scientific knowledge about dietary role in disease prevention and health promotion, importance of proper diet or food supplement has gained more importance in treatment or as preventive measure in different medical conditions.

An extensive research in the field of clinical nutrition and human intervention, it was proven that a diet that is low in saturated fat, and high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes and stroke. The scientists have also discovered the association of different phytochemicals like glucosilonates, terpenoides, polyphenols like anthocynanin, flavones and isoflavones with general wellbeing and decreased risk of certain diseases. These compounds cannot be truly classified as “food” and hence a combination of nutrient and pharmaceutical as “nutraceutical” was coined. Nutraceuticals have gained much attention in the recent years and the list of compounds (vitamins, dietary fibres, probiotics, antioxidants, bioactive peptides) is increasing steadily.   

2. What are functional foods?
Functional foods when consumed regularly exert a specific health-beneficial effect beyond their nutritional properties like lowering the risk of disease or improving health and this effect must be scientifically proven. Functional foods are similar to conventional foods, which are consumed as part of a usual diet but are known to improve health status beyond primary nutritional function while nutraceuticals are the products produced from foods but sold in medicinal forms of either a capsule, tablet, powder, solution, or potion, which is not generally associated with the food and have demonstrated physiological benefits and/or provide protection against chronic diseases. The increasing demand of functional foods and nutraceuticals is due to current population and health trends.

3. Types of functional foods and research in BARC
Functional foods can be classified as live organism fortified foods like probiotics (yogurt, curd, sauerkraut and so on) or chemical compound fortified foods which can be further categorised as nutrient fortified like vitamin B (B12, folate, Thiamine and so on), non-nutrient fortified foods viz. small chemical compounds like peptides, stenols/sterols, saponins, flavonoids and so on and polysaccharide like inulin, beta glucan, guar gum, locust bean gum or dietary fibre fortified foods, which may also act as prebiotics.  

Development of Indian ethnic probiotic and prebiotic foods is being carried out in Food Technology Division of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Different ethnic products like chapati, dhokla and idli are fortified with radiation processed dietary fibres without affecting the sensory qualities of those products. In addition to this, non-dairy based probiotic products are also being developed here.

1. Health benefits of functional foods

Sr. No.

Functional foods

Potential health benefits


Whole foods

Fruits and vegetables


Flax seeds


Black and green tea


Reduced the risk of cancers and heart diseases.


Enhanced foods

Dairy products with probiotics

Fish oil with Omega-3 fatty acids

Reduced risk of colon cancer, controls diarrhoeal disorders and eczema.


Fortified foods

Milk with vitamin D

Reduces risk of osteomalecia and osteoporosis.

Grains with added fibre

Reduced risk of certain cancers and heart diseases,

reduce cholesterol and constipation, increase blood glucose control.

Juices with calcium

Reduce risk of osteoporosis and hypertension.

Grains with folic acid

Reduced risk of heart diseases and neural tube defects.

Grains with folic acid
Reduced risk of heart diseases and neural tube defects

(Source: Gul et. Al. (2018) Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods: The Foods for the Future World. Critical reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 56 (2617-2627)

Market potential of functional foods
The countries like China, India and other southeast Asian countries are among the rapidly growing functional food markets, each experiencing growth in double digits. According to Frost & Sullivan, the global nutraceuticals market was around US$175 billion in 2016, and of this India had around 2 per cent, worth $3.0 billion. Growing at a CAGR of 17.1 per cent, the Indian market is expected to reach $4 billion by 2020.

Functional food in India is currently in its infancy, catering mostly for sophisticated city dwellers but the young population of dual income households, with a rising income, and growing awareness of healthier eating, has led to strong growth in this sector.

6. Challenges in development of functional foods
A. Regulating Health Claims: Product labelling and health claims should be allowed to accurately reflect the scientific evidence. The health claims on the product must be truthful and not misleading. FDA evaluates health claims using a standard of significant scientific agreement (SSA).

B. Bringing Functional Foods to Market: In this, it is important to first identify relationship between food component and health benefit. The efficacy and intake level to get desired result and safety of the product also must be demonstrated. Developing suitable food vehicle for bioactive component is also an important aspect to be considered. However, the real challenge in the market is when a particular company go through the health claim petition and obtains approval, the competitive companies also can use the claim. A very few exclusive ingredients can be patented, a large majority of products contains “free” ingredients and thus be copied. Also, it is not a simple task to prove and give scientific evidence to all the health beneficial claims.

C. Research: Both basic as well as applied research plays an important role in identifying entire range of functional foods. Secondly, research is also required in identifying the new roles for traditional nutrients to currently unidentified bioactive components to nutrigenomics applications.

7. Future of the functional foods
As of now, it was considered that medical care is just an area of drugs and nutrition for healthy living. However, in near future much work is expected to be done, how both of these interact and complement each other. With advent of technologies like nutrigenomics, imaging techniques, and converging technologies in nutrition research, it is possible to develop novel foods for targeted population groups with defined risk factors or diseases such as obesity, diabetes, allergy, and cardiovascular diseases.

With regard to growth of the industry, it is expected that the international growth across industry would continue in developing countries and also consumption of nutraceuticals. Domestic growth in developed countries is expected to continue as novel products and new target segments are introduced including high growth specialty foods focussed on probiotics and heart health. Ageing global population and rising healthcare costs made consumers to focus on healthier living, preventative care, and secondary source diagnosis or medication. However, stringency on rules and safety concerns could suppress the growth.

(The authors are food scientists at the Food Technology Division, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai. They can be contacted at;
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