What is a Functional Food?

A functional food is a food that has been specifically designed to provide health benefits beyond the traditional nutrients it contains. They generally contain bioactive components which may include pre and probiotics, essential fatty acids, and phytochemicals.

Sources of Functional Foods

Excellent sources of functional foods include fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fatty fish, and fermented dairy products.

Benefits of Functional Foods

  1. Disease Prevention: Some functional foods contain ingredients that have been shown to help prevent certain diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
  2. Enhanced Performance: Certain functional foods can help improve sports performance by providing additional energy or helping to improve recovery time after exercise.
  3. Increased Weight Loss: Some functional foods can help you lose weight by increasing satiety (fullness) or boosting metabolism.
  4. Improved Digestion: Functional foods may contain prebiotics or probiotics that can help maintain the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut. A healthy microflora balance boosts the immune system, maintains colon health, and can have a positive effect on the brain.

Traditional New Product Development Versus Functional Food Product Development

Functional food product development is a subfield of food science that deals with the development and production of foods that have specific health-promoting or disease-preventing properties. Traditional new product development, on the other hand, does not necessarily take into account the potential health benefits or risks of a food product. Rather, traditional new product development focuses on creating products that taste good and are appealing to consumers. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it means that functional food product development must go above and beyond traditional new product development in order to create products that are both safe and healthy for consumers to eat.

Challenges with Functional Food Product Development

The development of functional food products poses a number of challenges for manufacturers. One of the main challenges is to create products that meet consumer expectations in terms of taste, texture, and appearance, while also providing desired health benefits.

Another challenge is to develop products that are stable and have a long shelf-life. This is necessary to ensure that the functional ingredients remain effective over time. Hence, bioactive compounds that are prone to rapid breakdown may be encapsulated to increase their longevity. Encapsulation also serves to mask tastes that are undesirable.

Manufacturers need to consider regulatory issues when developing functional food products. In many countries, there are specific regulations governing the claims that can be made about the health benefits of a product. In order to make sure that their claims are legitimate, manufacturers of functional foods must work with several stakeholders to establish the clinical efficacy of their products. Some of these may include ingredient suppliers, pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, nano-technology, and biotechnology companies, research organizations, and regulatory agencies.

The need for validation of product efficacy means that functional food manufacturers end up spending a lot more on research and development compared to conventional new food product development efforts. It is not surprising therefore that it is usually larger corporations that are involved in functional food product development. Notwithstanding, the effort is worth it. These companies are able to go beyond producing “me too” products to create new markets with novel products that are far superior to anything available.


  • Courtney Simons

    Dr. Courtney Simons has served as a food science researcher and educator for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and a Ph.D. in Cereal Science from North Dakota State University.