Sante Group’s Guide to Functional Foods and their Benefits

26 October 2022

What are functional foods and nutraceuticals?

Functional foods can be defined in their most basic sense as foods that have additional purpose beyond their basic nutrition. In real terms, this means food that is packed with nutrients that offer a wide range of health benefits, such as fortified immunity and promoted growth and development. They are also known as nutraceuticals

A brief history of functional foods

Whilst certain foods have been used for their functional properties in medicine and healing tracing back centuries, in modern times consumers have taken up functional eating in proactively promoting health and wellbeing in a way never evidenced before. The earliest example of functional eating being recognised occurred in the 1980’s, when the Japanese government made an effort to improve the health of its general population by approving certain foods which had proven health benefits. This would sow the seed for food labelling for dietary uses, and opened a dialogue around whether it was appropriate to label food ‘functional’, in a way that had only been used for pharmaceuticals prior.

Although this would serve as a important precursor to what would become a seismic shift in consumer buying habits, it took changing attitudes and increased awareness around health on a much larger scale to truly alter consumption behaviours. The advent of the internet proved to be the catalyst towards this, as the instant access to a world of information made it possible for almost anyone to research exactly what they put into their bodies and how it impacted their health. The worldwide pandemic of 2020 further increased the behaviour of functional eating, with fear of potentially serious side effects from catching the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 causing many consumers to seek foods that could boost their immune systems.

the two forms of functional ingredients

Functional ingredients come in two forms: conventional and modified. Whole food ingredients, where nutrients such as anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals and monosaturated fats (also known as heart-healthy fats) occur naturally, are classified as conventional functional foods. The opposite to this is modified or fortified functional food, which is food that has been supplemented with additional ingredients that include vitamins, minerals, probiotics or fibre.

Examples of conventional functional foods include:

  • Fruits: berries, kiwi, pears, peaches, apples, oranges, bananas
  • Vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, zucchini
  • Nuts: almonds, cashews, pistachios, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts
  • Seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, navy beans, lentils
  • Whole grains: oats, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, couscous
  • Seafood: salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, cod
  • Fermented foods: tempeh, kombucha, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut
  • Herbs and spices: turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne pepper
  • Beverages: coffee, green tea, black tea

Examples of modified, or fortified functional foods include:

  • Fortified juices
  • Fortified dairy products, such as milk and yogurt
  • Fortified milk alternatives, such as almond, rice, coconut, and cashew milk
  • Fortified grains, such as bread and pasta
  • Fortified cereal and granola
  • Fortified eggs


Functional Foods for Different Health Problems

Functional Foods for Diabetes

Phytosterols, found in fruits and vegetables, seeds, nuts and fortified dairy, can help to prevent diabetes by lowering cholesterol. Fruits, vegetables and nuts also contain phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which have been shown in animal studies to slow down carbohydrate digestion and improve diabetes management. Lastly, probiotics found in yoghurts and fermented foods can improve gut health, which increases insulin sensitivity.

Functional Foods for Hypertension

There are a number of different foods with different mechanisms which are helpful in reducing hypertension and the risk of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). The most important foods and their mechanisms are:

  • Foods with phytosterols (primarily vegetables and nuts) and fibrous foods which will lower cholesterol
  • Foods with antioxidants, like fruits, vegetables tea and soy proteins
  • Foods with omega 3 fatty acids which will lower blood triglycerides, cholesterol and blood pressure
  • Citrus fruits and fibrous foods which will also lower blood pressure
Functional Foods for Osteoporosis

There are a growing number of foods that are being fortified with vitamins to increase bone health, and prevent the risk of osteoporosis.  The most popular are foods that have been fortified with calcium, which is also found naturally in dairy products. Vitamin D, Magnesium and vitamin K are also used to fortify foods to promote bone strength.  As well as the vitamins and minerals themselves, people are also consuming whey protein and insulin enhancers to improve the body’s ability to absorb the calcium.


In summary, the wealth of information available online makes it possible for almost everyone to scrutinise what they eat and discover how functional eating can better their health. By choosing the right foods which offer health benefits in addition to basic nutrition, the average consumer can utilise the benefits of functional eating to significantly reduce the risk of disease and manage long term conditions better.



Functional Foods: Definition, Benefits, and Uses (

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Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals in the Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Diseases – PMC (