Nature's own functional foods

Walk down any supermarket aisle and you are sure to find a whole range of functional foods. These are foods and drinks that promise to deliver a variety of health benefits, from probiotic yoghurts that are good for your gut, to margarines with promises of reducing cholesterol and breakfast cereal with added folic acid or vitamin D.

Defined by the British Nutrition Foundation as foods ‘that are enriched with particular nutrients or substances that have the potential to positively influence health over and above their basic nutritional value’, functional foods are nothing new and our appetite for innovative foods that promise additional health benefits shows no sign of waning.

Sometimes it is worth getting back to basics to discover everyday foods that could have similar health effects. Let’s delve into your shopping basket to discover what foods you could add to your shopping list to boost your nutrition.

  • Probiotics

Bio, live or probiotic are buzz words that tell you your yoghurt or drink contains some good bacteria. Unfortunately these same foods can be loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners, which do your digestion no favours at all. My suggestion would be to incorporate some natural probiotic foods into your diet. Live natural (not flavoured) yoghurt, kefir (available in most supermarkets) and sauerkraut all contain good levels of these lactic acid bacteria without the sugar hit.

  • Vitamin C

Most of us associate vitamin C with oranges, but did you know that red peppers contain about three times as much vitamin C as an orange, or that broccoli, cauliflower and kiwi fruit could be better at boosting your levels.

  • Vitamin D

Although it is a vitamin, food is not the best source of this vitamin. Also known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is made when our skin is exposed to sunlight. Most of us living in Northern Ireland could do with a little top up in autumn and winter, so best to take a supplement in the darker months of the year.

  • Calcium

Think calcium, think dairy products, but there are plenty of other foods that provide this important mineral. Dark green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds, seafood and tofu are good sources too.

  • Sterols and stanols

These weird sounding ingredients are what you find in products claiming to lower cholesterol. Foods like Benecol drinks, or Flora proactive margarine. Sterols and stanols have a very similar structure to cholesterol and so compete with cholesterol for absorption in the gut to help reduce overall cholesterol. Sterols are found in small amounts in foods like nuts and seeds, beans and lentils. There does seem to be good evidence of plant sterols and stanols help to reduce cholesterol, but recent research suggest that they may upset the delicate balance of bacteria in our gut, as well as potentially affecting our metabolism. For my money I would prefer to eat more peas, beans, lentils and plant foods, rather than processed foods and margarines.

  • Beta glucans

Beta glucans is a form of soluble dietary fibre that has been associated with balancing cholesterol and promoting heart health. It is naturally found in oats.

Everyday Functional Foods

Here are my top ten store cupboard essentials for a vitamin and mineral boost:

  1. Sesame seeds or tahini for calcium, zinc and copper.
  2. Fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut or live yoghurt for a probiotic boost.
  3. Oats for beta glucans and cholesterol balance.
  4. Dark green leafy vegetables for calcium, magnesium, vitamin K and vitamin A.
  5. Berries and kiwis for vitamin C.
  6. Dark chocolate for iron and fibre!
  7. Beans and lentils for phytosterols (plant sterols).
  8. Green tea for l-theanine – a naturally calming amino acid.
  9. Seafood for zinc
  10. Orange coloured fruit and veg like cantaloupe melon, sweet potato and carrots for beta carotene.