Functional foods are an extremely popular culinary trend, netting nearly $100 billion in annual revenue in 2021, and projected to reach nearly $140 billion by 2026. But what can those in the food industry do to leverage this trend and serve up food that is both tasty and also “functional.”
In part one, we’ll define functional foods and look at ways to incorporate functional ingredients into dishes and menus.
What Are Functional Foods
The age-old saying “you are what you eat” is an accurate statement. The food and beverages we consume plays a pivotal role in shaping our physical health, mental well-being, and overall vitality. Functional foods refers to a vast and diverse set of food, each promising a different “extra- nutritional” benefit.
The term, “functional foods,” also called nutraceuticals and “designer foods” refers to foods that offer a benefit beyond tasting good and filling you up. This benefit is usually related to overall health – although foods that confer environmental benefits are also increasingly being labeled “functional foods.” Some functional foods, especially fermented foods and fermented additives are touted for their ability to balance the eater’s microbiome and promote a healthier gut environment. Other foods, like kava roots and melatonin gummies promise to ensure a good night’s sleep, while still others promise to boost the immune system’s defenses against illnesses. Athletes may tout ingredients that provide natural and sustained energy or those designed to optimize physical performance. Foods with omega 3 fats or probiotics are also popular. Beyond personal well-being, many functional foods align with sustainability and minimal waste.
As the functional food market continues to grow the types of food and their benefits that fall under the functional header continues to grow as well.
History of Functional Foods
Although the functional food trend is growing rapidly, it is actually decades old. The term, “functional foods” was first coined in the 1980s by a Japanese scholarly society that created legal policies for marketing FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Use). But the concept itself is older than the name, with Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine positing that “Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food.”
After Japan took Hippocrates’ advice at face value, the idea quickly spread to the United States, where it was an instant hit, growing by billions of dollars in revenue a year. In an ironic twist, the United States may have had its first mass-produced functional beverage long before Japan coined the term, and that beverage, while still incredibly popular today, would no longer be considered “healthy” or “functional” by any stretch of the imagination – Coca-Cola.
In 1866, chemist John S. Pemberton invented a tonic that provided pain relief and an energy boost. The key ingredients included cocoa, cocaine, sugar, carbonated water, and kola nuts. Pemberton marketed his beverage for recreational drinking under the brand name Coca-Cola. Which is both an interesting anecdote and underscores the need for regulation, testing, and monitoring of the functional food market to ensure that health claims aren’t being fabricated or overstated (although we’ll give Pemberton a pass, since he was unaware of the health consequences and sincerely touted the benefits of active cocaine).
The Fine Line Between Food and Supplements
One of the culinary areas heavily subjected to disingenuous marketing is the supplements industry. The health-food aisle in the grocery store is replete with food additives guaranteeing weight loss, muscle building, and unlimited energy. Many of these lack scientific backing and their effectiveness is questionable.
Also up for debate are whether these supplements are considered functional foods. When it comes to functional foods there are really only two main categories. The first are foods that inherently have nutritional or extra-nutritional benefits. People may eat these foods as part of a balanced diet or add them to their diets specifically for their “functional” extra-nutritional benefit. The second category is foods that have been nutritionally modified or fortified. Examples of these include multivitamins disguised as candies or chocolate bars, powders intended to be added to smoothies, and fortified breakfast cereals that advertise their nutritional fortification.
Naturally “Extra-Nutritional” Foods
There is a long list of popular functional “buzz” foods that restaurants are adding to their recipes due to their health benefits and great taste. These include:
Fermented and Cultured Foods
Foods like kimchi, kefir, Greek yogurt, and kombucha are having a moment in the culinary world. The main claimed benefit of these foods is that they are packed with good bacteria and yeast (probiotics) and that eating them can balance your gut flora. Getting started with fermented foods isn’t too hard.
You need a fermenting vessel, like a sealed crock or mason jar and fermentation weights to keep the food covered by the brine in the jar. Then it’s just a matter of preparing your ingredients and your brine, sealing them in the jar, and letting the bacteria do the rest of the work for you. Fermented foods come in many styles and flavors, so it’s also relatively easy to add fermented and cultured foods to a menu. You can even create fermented versions of popular condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise.
Salmon and Other Fatty Fish
Salmon is both delicious and rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. These Omega 3 fatty acids are one of the most well-studied nutrients and have been linked with a number of health benefits including maintaining mental health, preventing eye damage, reducing symptoms of ADHD, lowering blood sugar levels, and promoting cognitive health. Many seafood options, like sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and oysters contain Omega 3’s, but they are also found in spinach and brussel sprouts.
Seaweed and Algae
Fish packed with Omega 3’s isn’t the only nutrient-rich food that the sea has to offer. Seaweed is growing in its culinary popularity both because it can be grown in high-salinity environments making it cheap and environmentally friendly (since fertile land doesn’t need to be cleared to farm it) and because it is packed with antioxidants and nutrients.
Seaweed has a lot of fiber, which can help with digestive health and weight loss, but it is also low in calories. And some sea vegetables are linked with heart and thyroid health. Many seaweeds have salty, umami flavors, which makes them easy to add to recipes in place of salt. A popular “functional food” snack that can replace chips and fries on a menu is roasted seaweed snacks. To make these, take Nori sheets, and lightly oil them using a basting brush. Season with salt and heat on a skillet or griddle for around 3-5 seconds on each side.
Citrus fruits like grapefruits, oranges, limes, and lemons, have been consumed for their functional uses for centuries. Hundreds of years ago scurvy, which causes lethargy, armenia, bleeding gums, and unhealed wounds, was a common ailment for sailors who spent a long time at sea eating hardtack and dried meat. Eventually it was discovered that scurvy was a nutritional deficiency caused by lack of vitamin C, whereupon sailors started bringing oranges with them on long voyages. Nowadays, because of their high vitamin C content, citrus foods are popular not for beating back scurvy, but for boosting the immune system. Citrus also has a fantastic flavor which is great for garnishes and dressings. To get the most from your citrus fruits, use a squeezer or juicer to make fresh citrus juice for using in recipes and for serving as beverages.
There are a number of spices and seasonings on the functional food list. For example, turmeric contains the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredient curcumin. Preliminary research has linked turmeric with the ability to prevent eye disease, keep arthritis at bay, boost cognitive ability, and promote kidney health. Turmeric has a musky, peppery flavor and can be used as a spice, or served as a tea.
Ginger is another seasoning with a great flavor and great side benefits. It’s been touted as an anti-nausea and digestive-system soother for centuries. Ginger is versatile and can be used in a number of dishes. To prepare fresh ginger, first grate off the skin, and then separate the branches. Next you can cut the ginger or puree it. Ginger freezes well, so you can always have it on hand for recipes. Other popular spices that double as functional foods include cumin (helps with weight loss, stress management, and is an anti-diabetic), peppermint (has antibacterial, cardiovascular, and pulmonary benefits), cinnamon (may help with regulating glucose and boosting cognitive ability), along with many others.
Functional foods that double as grains are great for those in the food industry because it’s very easy to make these the star of the dish. For example, the grain-like food, quinoa is considered a superfood because it has a higher-than-average protein to carbohydrate ratio, and it contains all the amino acids your body needs to maintain muscle, bone, skin, and blood health.
Quinoa makes a delicious salad base and can be part of a gluten-free flour mix for baking. To cook quinoa, combine it with two parts water in a pot. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Let the quinoa sit for 10 minutes before serving it.
Oats are another popular grain. Oats are extremely versatile – they can be used to make dairy-free oat milk, gluten-free flour, oatmeal, and granola, and they are also a potent antioxidant. Oats contain beta-glucan which is a fiber that promotes good bacteria and regulates diabetes and blood sugar. Oats can also lower cholesterol and promote heart health. Additionally, oats are a dense food, so they fill you up and can help regulate appetite and promote weight loss.
Mushrooms come in many varieties and several are associated with medicinal benefits (and earthy, umami tastes). Some of the more popular varieties are chaga (also known as the “king of the mushrooms”), reishi (the “queen of the mushrooms” or the “mushroom of immortality”), shiitake, lion’s mane, cordyceps, and turkey tail. These mushrooms are sometimes offered in supplement form, and the market for functional fungi reached $25 billion in 2020. Among the benefits ascribed to these mushrooms are lowering cholesterol, preventing cancer, boosting the immune system, boosting energy and strength, and promoting cognitive health. Although it’s easier to find these ingredients as supplements, powders or teas, if you can track down the fresh or dried variety, you can use them to add a tender flavor and meaty texture to any dish.
Chaga has a nutty, earthy flavor and is delicious when roasted, stir fried, or added to a stew. Reishi also has a nutty and woodsy flavor and pairs well with garlic, ginger, honey, and soy sauce. Shiitake has a very meaty texture and savory flavor, so it’s an excellent vegan alternative to meat in a stir fry (it can even be fried into “bacon” strips). However, the stems of the shiitake aren’t edible, so make sure to separate them from the caps. Lion’s mane is another good meat substitute; it has a lobster-like texture and is extremely absorbent. They also taste great when deep fried. Cordyceps are small, stringy mushrooms, and after boiling them for a minute or two, they can be added to pastas, salads, soups, and stir fries.
There are a number of benefits attributed to chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, and other nutritional seed varieties, including lowering cholesterol, reducing the risk of cancer, and reducing inflammation. Some of these seeds are also packed with omega 3 fatty acids. Interestingly, flax seeds also have a number of culinary benefits. The ground seeds can replace oil in a recipe. And if you mix the ground seeds with water you can create a viscous liquid that can take the place of an egg in vegan baking – which is a great way to create a product that is both “functional” and vegan.
Fruit and Vegetables
We’ve all heard the axiom about “an apple a day” keeping the doctor away, but many fruits do have functional roles as well as tasting delicious. For example, citrus fruits aren’t the only ones with vitamin C. Kiwi, strawberry, bananas, and melons also contain the vital nutrient in abundance. However, since fruits and vegetables are already associated with health and nutrition, if you are trying to market the specific functional benefits of a fruit-based dish, incorporating a more exotic, functional fruit can help “wow” your patrons, like papaya, or coconut.
Coconut is packed with hydrating electrolytes (which is why coconut-based waters are so popular, while papaya is a digestive aid and packed with powerful antioxidants. Both papaya and coconut can be used in sweet, savory, and spicy dishes and coconut in particular has a lot of culinary versatility. When it comes to marketing the functional potential in vegetables, adding a dish with a name like “heart-health salad” to a menu, packed with functional stars like kale, beets, and watercress, and the dressing could incorporate chia seeds.
Prebiotics differ from the similar term probiotics. Probiotics (like fermented offerings) actually contain the good bacteria and mold your body needs, whereas prebiotics are packed with the nutrients that those gut flora need to thrive in the body. The prebiotics functional category includes roots, like chicory (a bitter coffee replacement), jicama, and Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, and dandelion greens. Jerusalem artichoke can replace potatoes for healthier, and slightly nuttier-tasting, fries or breakfast hashbrowns, while dandelions can go directly into a salad or garnish. A prebiotic-themed dish could be something like roasted vegetables (including garlic, onions, and Jerusalem artichoke, eggplant, and jicama) mixed with barley kasha.
Supplement stores sell pills and powders with ginkgo biloba, but if you are able to track down this tree’s fresh nuts, you can go right to the nutritional source. Not only are these nuts useful for boosting cognitive ability, preventing eye disease, and boosting mood, they are also quite tasty roasted or boiled. Traditional Asian soups and desserts contain this functional superstar. Ginkgos aren’t the only functional nut. Many nuts (most significantly walnuts) are packed with omega 3s and are associated with metabolic health and weight loss.
Teas and Coffees
Coffee doesn’t just contain its most famous ingredient – caffeine. This popular drink is also packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Whatsmore, coffee is associated with reduced risk of stroke and heart failure. Plus, the caffeine may help with alertness, attention, memory, and learning. And, let’s be honest, many drink our morning “cup o’joe” specifically for its functional reasons – it helps us fully wake up and get our day started. So, don’t be scared to use coffee not just in its liquid form, but also take advantage of the full scope of its culinary potential. Coffee is a delicious dessert and as a rub for meat.
When it comes to teas, matcha has been getting a lot of press time for its alertness and attention-boosting abilities. Matcha has more caffeine than green tea, but also boasts the compound L-theanine, which prevents the caffeine crash. So, it gives you all the cognitive and cardiac health benefits of coffee sans the low-energy slump when the caffeine wears off. And matcha has a savory, grassy flavor which is good in beverage form and mixed into desserts and smoothies.
The List Goes On
The list of foods which both taste good and are good for you is extremely comprehensive, which is great news for those in the food industry. No matter what style of cuisine you serve up, there are nearly endless opportunities to make it both functional and tasty as well. This article focused on the many culinary opportunities for using extra-nutritionally foods.
In part two we’ll discuss how to incorporate supplements, powders, and nutritionally-modified foods into your menu, and how you can market foods in your cafe, or restaurant for their functional uses.