With greater access to nutritional and health information than ever before, modern generations have become more focused on making healthy diet choices. Modern Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, have been labelled the “most health conscious generation ever,” with Gen Z not far behind.
Part of that focus on wellness has promoted the idea of food as medicine, which encourages us to look to our diet to solve certain health problems before resorting to pharmaceuticals. With consumers turning to the pantry instead of the pill for healing, some are actively searching for foods that achieve specific nutritional and health objectives.
What Are Functional Foods?
Technically, all food is functional food. Its function is to give your body nutrients to stay healthy and calories for energy. However, some foods do a much better job of achieving these goals than others. The foods that do the best job at nourishing your body — that is, they have health benefits beyond just basic nutrition — are known as functional foods.
In 2016, the estimated cost in the U.S. for treatment of chronic health conditions was $1.1 trillion. Proponents of functional foods say that some dietary changes may be able to reduce risks of certain diseases and their symptoms. Experimenting with changes in diet before turning to modern medicine may be a more affordable and less invasive way to improve our health. Of course, you should always consult your doctor before making any major dietary changes!
Different functional foods serve different purposes, from improving heart health to promoting a healthy gut to reducing inflammation. You may be regularly consuming these beneficial foods without even knowing it!
Examples of Functional Foods
You’ll find functional foods all over the kitchen, if you know where to look.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi are full of probiotics, which feed your healthy digestive bacteria and aid in gut health. Omega 3s and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are commonly found in seafood, seaweed, flax seeds, and walnuts, and can help promote heart and brain health.
Green tea may be able to improve blood flow and reduce cholesterol. Beans and whole grains are high in dietary fiber, which can lower cholesterol and improve gut health.
Inflammation, a common symptom of rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease, may be kept in check by a diet high in healthy fats from fish, olive oil, and avocados, and antioxidant-rich berries, tomatoes, and leafy greens.
None of these ingredients are a magic cure, and eating these foods will not solve health problems overnight. But adding them as a regular part of your diet may lead to improvements long term. And adding them to your menu could make your restaurant an attractive choice to those who are focused on their health.
Students at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts who are working toward their associate degree can explore more about food and nutrients in the Science of Nutrition course. This part of the curriculum covers the basic principles of nutrition, including the bioavailability of nutrients, their food sources, and their role in overall health.
Should Your Restaurant or Food Business Focus on Function?
A recent study by the International Food Information Council reports that 4 out of 5 Americans either consume or are interested in consuming functional foods. That’s a stat worthy of consideration!
Some restaurants are benefiting from this trend by adding more of these ingredients to their menus. Whether this is a good option for you will depend on your restaurant style and clientele. Customers at a diner or burger joint may not be interested in functional foods — at least not during this particular meal. But guests at a restaurant that highlights fresh, local ingredients may be more interested in these healthy foods.
If you want to create dishes that serve a specific health need, it’s important to understand how to prepare those ingredients to retain nutritional value. Nutrients can be lost in the cooking process, which reduces the efficacy of a functional food.
If you do promote functional foods at your restaurant, be careful to avoid making specific health claims. For example, you could say that salmon contains Omega 3 fatty acids which are good for your heart, but you wouldn’t want to say that a diet high in Omega 3s can prevent a heart attack.
To call out these benefits, you could include a label key, like a heart icon next to dishes with heart-healthy ingredients. And make sure your staff is well-trained on the ingredients of each dish, so they can answer customer questions in real time.
Where to Learn About Functional Foods
This interest in food as medicine isn’t showing any signs of slowing down! Culinarians who want to stay current with new trends should pay special attention to functional foods as they hone their craft in the kitchen.
A culinary education from Escoffier may help graduates to provide functional foods to the more health-conscious foodies out there — as well as helping them to make smarter food choices in their own lives.
If you want to read more about culinary trends and styles, try these articles next:
- Gen-Z Food Habits & Influences
- A Look Back at the Food Trends of the 2010s
- A Brief History of the Michelin Star Rating
This article was originally published on July 9th, 2019, and has been updated.