Functional foods do more than just taste good

By Danielle Wright

Gone are the days when food was eaten purely for pleasure. These days, your food better taste good and DO something, discovers Danielle Wright.

Consumer focus has now shifted toward functional food that is required to do more than just taste good. Photo / Thinkstock
Consumer focus has now shifted toward functional food that is required to do more than just taste good. Photo / Thinkstock

From mood swing sweets to sleep-easy tea, functional foods are increasing and every week more brands are adding claims to their products, but do we need food with function?

"Most New Zealander's don't achieve their 5+ a day," says Ann Giles from Annies Marlborough, whose fruit bars are mostly fruit without water, nothing added. "People run out of time and energy to ensure they have a diet rich in the essential goodies that build healthy bodies and immune systems."

This, says Giles, is where functional foods provide an opportunity to fill a nutritional gap. "They are foods where an ingredient has been added to enhance or add a function that's often related to health promotion or disease prevention."

Historically, we've always eaten functional foods - garlic to ward off a cold, berries and grapefruit in winter; both of these examples are good for boosting our immune systems.

"Mother Nature is amazing," says food researcher and health mentor, Jason Shon Bennett, who cured his own severe health problems through diet. "She provides the perfect food for seasonal ailments."

You might be surprised to learn that you can often visually identify the function of natural foods. For example, carrots are good for the eyes. If you slice a carrot in half crosswise the lines mimic the pupil and iris.Walnuts are nicknamed "brain food" and they look just like tiny brains complete with left and right hemispheres.

Sliced tomatoes resemble the structure of the heart with multiple chambers and, you guessed it, are credited with reducing the risk of heart disease. The list goes on - avocados for the uterus, celery for bones. It seems functional foods have always existed if you look closely.

However, alongside the traditional functional foods, there are also foods claiming to make you lose weight, next to ones promising weight gain; foods to make you smarter and even to give you whiter teeth.

Fine tea-maker, Harney & Sons has a range of Chopra teas blended in honour of Deepak Chopra, an authority on mind and body healing through ayurveda. The company says one tea balances your vata, another your pitta and a third balances your kapha.

In layman's terms, a relaxing tea (for vata) will help calm, harmonise and quiet the body with a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, liquorice and ginger. A soothing tea (for pitta) helps to cool, settle and focus with camomile, spearmint and hibiscus. An invigorating tea (for kapha) helps refresh, inspire and enliven with ginger, peppermint and cinnamon, among other herbs.

There are also liqueurs from Herbal Lore made with organic herbs, such as their Ginseng Liqueur for a total body tonic, or the Tempest Liqueur touted as providing inner calm. These give new meaning to "drinking to good health".

"An apple is one of the original functional foods - the saying 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away', is as true now as it was a hundred years ago," says Shon Bennett, who encourages more raw, fermented and sprouted foods to be eaten.

Julian Mellentin is a leader in the field of functional food trends, which he identifies each year. The consumer focus for 2012 includes foods that give you energy, that help digestive health, immunity, joints and weight management.

Giles, who has fibre added to some of her fruit bars, adds that in the USA, baobab is the new "super fruit" from Africa, and in the UK the interest is in beetroot. She says: "Adding functionality to foods we love can be an easy way to consume them in a yummy way."

Her advice: "Food does not have to be complicated or hard - eat simply, as close to the natural state as possible. Get this right and you won't need much functionality as it will be naturally present in your food."

Shon Bennett agrees: "If you base your diet around what's in season, particularly vegetables, you can get miracle results."

Now that we eat winter vegetables in summer and summer fruits in winter, the historical functional food plan as nature intended seems to need some help. If you can stick to it, great. If you need a little help, preferably covered in chocolate, that seems to be just fine too.

- Herald on Sunday

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