Ask an expert: What is ‘functional food’ and why should Canadians care?

- December 13, 2022

Demand for supplemented food is growing in Canadian groceries. (Polina Tankilevitch photo/Unsplash)
Demand for supplemented food is growing in Canadian groceries. (Polina Tankilevitch photo/Unsplash)

There’s no question the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the dietary habits of Canadians. Demand for foods and beverages that help support immunity directly or through an enhanced gut microbiota has grown substantially in recent years. 

This surge has also been driven by growing awareness about how incorporating more bioactives into diets can also help reduce the risks of non-communicable diseases such as cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and Type-2 diabetes.

This shifting landscape has created a window of opportunity for the functional food industry to innovate new food and beverage products.

We spoke to Vasantha Rupasinghe, a professor in Dal's Department of Plant, Food, and Environmental Sciences, to learn more about functional foods and nutraceuticals.

What are functional foods and food bioactives?

The concept of functional food is built around what Hippocrates, the father of medicine, stated thousands of years before: ‘Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.’

Food can be regarded as ‘functional’ if it is shown to benefit one or more target functions in the body, beyond adequate nutrition, in a way that improves health and well-being or reduces the risk of disease. 

Food bioactive refers to the non-nutrient, naturally occurring constituents of food that have protective effects against non-communicable diseases. 

Food bioactives are sometimes called nutraceutical ingredients and can be classified into many sub-groups of flavonoids and other polyphenols, omega-3 fatty acids, bioactive peptides, prebiotics and probiotics and some minerals. 

For example, polyphenols, especially catechins, are the primary food bioactive of green tea that provide antioxidative and other physiological functions, bringing health benefits that extend beyond those of basic nutrition.

What is the status of functional foods in Canada?

In Canada, there are no formally recognized functional foods.  There are some categories of regulated specialized food which bear some aspects of the concept of functional foods. 

For example, supplemented foods are broadly defined as pre-packaged products that are manufactured, sold, or represented as food, which contain added bioactive or herbal ingredients, vitamins, minerals, or amino acids. These ingredients may perform a physiological role beyond the provision of nutritive requirements.

It seems that plant ingredients incorporated into supplemented food are growing in Canadian groceries.

Health Canada also allows foods with nutrient claims. The function claims are for the specific component of the food.

For example DHA-containing foods could claim: “DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, supports the normal physiological development of brain, eyes, and nerves primarily in children aged under 2 years.” 

For the foods with probiotic claims, species-specific claims are accepted if a serving contains a minimum of one billion colony-forming units of one or more eligible microorganisms. 

A few disease risk reduction claims are allowed on food labels in Canada: for example, “A healthy diet rich in a variety of vegetables and fruit may help reduce the risk of heart disease” and “Selenium helps against oxidative stress.”

Novel food ingredients undergo a mandatory pre-market assessment prior to being authorized for sale in Canada. Marketers require a Temporary Marketing Authorization Letter from Health Canada.

What is the future of functional foods in Canada?

A survey conducted among Canadians in 2021 by Dalhousie University indicates that only 21.4% of Canadians will think about food’s bioactive properties when purchasing fruits or vegetables. However, 48% of Canadians eat fruits and vegetables to reduce cancer risks. 

These trends indicate there are a lot of prospects to bring the concept of functional foods to Canadian consumers. The same survey indicated the major barrier to fruit and vegetable consumption is the cost (39.5%). Thus, the promotion of bioactive enriched fresh or supplemented food as functional foods requires government policies to make them available at affordable prices.

To continue advancing the functional food sector, and to provide true physiological health benefits to Canadian consumers, it is critical to establish Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) for common food bioactives. Health Canada and respective research institutes are required to work closely to establish DRIs to develop effective and safe doses to guide food manufacturers. 

It is also required to educate Canadians on food bioactives. The impact of nutrition and food bioactives should be included in the Canadian education system, including medical schools.

With the recent trends in foods, Canada has comparative advantages to manufacture many functional foods and ingredients for the local and global market.

In Canada, innovative food manufacturing is urgently required for promoting and expanding fermented food and gluten-free supplemented food for special dietary use such as weight management, cognitive health, and healthy aging.