Your Ultimate Guide to Functional Foods

Food is known to provide many benefits and sustain life, so what does it mean if they have an added function? Learn what makes functional ingredients and foods so special here!

Food packages commonly claim to contain the power of functional foods, but what are functional foods exactly? 

Looking at some food labels, it would seem that they can cure everything from high cholesterol to cancer. However, there’s a little more to functional ingredients than just eating functional foods. 

Read on to learn more about functional ingredients and foods here!

What Are Functional Foods? 

Most food is considered functional due to the fact that physical benefits such as protein for muscle function or carbohydrates for energy can be derived from their ingredients. 

What separates truly exceptional functional foods from the others is an impressive nutrient profile. In other words, the vitamins and minerals that nourish at the cellular level can truly feed the body deeply, and the resulting effect on overall health when combined with a well-balanced diet speaks louder than any eye-catching fad food label could. 

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does regulate health claims that appear on labels, it does not regulate a legal definition of functional foods, making it even more important to be aware of what exactly these ingredients are and how to accurately evaluate a nutrition label. 

Functional Food Examples

Many foods can be considered functional, though the term functional foods typically refers to foods that have potentially positive added health benefits beyond basic nutrition. 

One familiar functional food example is oatmeal, which contains soluble fiber. This sort of fiber can help lower cholesterol levels and support heart health.

Orange juice is another common functional food. Modified for health benefits, orange juice is often fortified with calcium or vitamin D to aid in maintaining bone health. 

Really, a variety of foods  and beverages can be classified as functional and includes the following examples:

  • Whole or conventional foods: including grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts
  • Modified foods: including fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods such as yogurt, milk, and orange juice
  • Food ingredients: includes isolated or synthesized food ingredients such as those that provide prebiotic effects 

Consider adding some of the following nutrient-dense functional foods listed below. 

Cold-Water Fish

Fish such as sardines and salmon are packed with protein and contain higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients can help to improve health by lowering heart disease risk. 

Fish as functional food has also been shown to improve infant health when the mother consumes it during the period of time she is breastfeeding. 


As if nuts did not already have an impressive list of health benefits, go ahead and add functional food to the list! Beyond being nutritious as an additional ingredient or great as a stand-alone snack, nuts also provide higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. 

Most nuts also have higher amounts of fiber, vitamin E, and other important minerals. They can assist in weight loss, protect the heart, and help in diabetes management. 

Promoting overall health, they also reduce inflammation (unless an individual has an allergy to nuts), support brain health, and decrease cancer and chronic disease risk. Walnuts in particular are praised for supporting heart and brain health, and can potentially reduce cancer risk. 

Whole Grains

Some grains are just the whole package, and they are called whole grains. These grains provide a variety of health benefits because they literally are the whole package. Grains have three main parts, and the refining of grains into products such as white bread or white rice strips these important, nutrient-filled layers away. 

Whole grains have all three layers, which helps it to  keep the body healthy, reduce disease risk, and help prevent chronic conditions. Making at least half of the grains consumed during the day whole is a great way to be proactive about health and wellness. Whole grain products that are high in fiber and low in added sugars can also improve digestive health while protecting against inflammation. 

Some common whole grains include: 

  • Amaranth 
  • Barley
  • Oats and oatmeal
  • Brown rice
  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Quinoa
  • Teff
  • Some cereals

Beware of tricky whole-grain labeling. Multi-grain, stone-ground, 100% wheat, cracked wheat, 7-grain, and bran are generally not whole-grain foods but rather sneaky labeling tactics to attract customers. 

When in doubt, flip the package over and make sure whole-grain is the first ingredient.  


High in fiber, protein, and nutrients like potassium and folate, beans without added salt can be a significant source of vitamins and minerals. 

Using them as a functional food is most effective if they are rinsed and drained before use. This reduces the sodium (salt) content if salt has been added to the beans during processing or packaging. 

Probiotic-Containing Foods

Probiotics are live cultures commonly known as “good” bacteria that promote gut health. While probiotics can be supplemented in pill form, they are naturally occurring in some functional foods, including the following: 

  • Fermented dairy foods:
    • Kefir
    • Yogurt
    • Aged cheeses
  • Fermented non-dairy foods:
    • Kimchi
    • Sauerkraut
    • Miso
    • Tempeh
    • Cultured non-dairy yogurts (i.e. coconut or almond milk-based yogurt alternative products)


A bountiful functional food source, berries practically have superpowers. They come full of health-promoting benefits, antioxidant nutrients (such as vitamins A and C),  and are available in a wide variety. 

The following berries are popular choices: 

  • Strawberries
  • Cranberries
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries 

If fresh berries are not available or in season, frozen berries are a great staple to have on hand. When selecting frozen berries, just be sure to check the label for no added sugar. 

Uses & Benefits of Functional Foods

Functional foods have many uses in a healthy diet, assuming they come from responsible sources and are part of a balanced eating pattern. Beans and whole-grains are considered prebiotics, which promote probiotics and ultimately contribute to GI health. 

When functional foods are consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis, they can have potentially profound health benefits such as improved physical health. 

A crucial component of functional foods achieving their optimal benefit is to consume them in their whole form when possible and safe to do so. Other potential positive benefits include: 

  • Reduces risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity
  • Reduces risk of all-cause mortality
  • Reduces risk of cancer, especially colorectal 
  • Reduces chronic inflammation and lowers oxidative stress 
  • Prevents insulin resistance
  • Improves blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels
  • Improves GI health

The Academy of Nutrition of Dietetics provides some great advice when it comes to evaluating healthy functional food choices: “Focusing on the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list on the back of a food package can help you determine if a food is a healthful choice.”

Another great rule of thumb is to try and obtain nutrients from naturally occurring sources, such as fruits, nuts, and vegetables, before supplementing nutritional gaps with fortified foods. In other words, fortified foods should fortify the diet, not replace nutritious food choices. 


Ellis E. What is a whole grain. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2019.

Giancoli A. 5 Whole Grains to Keep Your Family Healthy. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2020.

Klemm S. Functional Foods. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2019.

Klemm S. Prebiotics and Probiotics: Creating a Healthier You. 2019.

Litwin N, Clifford J, Johnson S. Functional foods for health. Colorado State University. 2018.

Zeratsky K. I’ve heard the term “functional foods,” but I don’t know what it means. Can you explain?. Mayo Clinic. 2020.