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“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This saying by Hippocrates from nearly 2,500 years ago still rings true—and has garnered renewed attention given today’s increasing concerns about the foods we eat. Much of this interest has focused on foods that improve our health and well-being, some of which are physiologically active. These are known as functional foods.

The term “functional foods” is used to describe foods that go beyond the purpose of meeting basic nutritional needs. The additional health benefits provided by functional foods have been brought into the spotlight over recent decades as links have been established between the quality and composition of foods and our overall well-being.

The Origin of Functional Foods

A term first coined in Japan in the mid-1980s, functional foods referred to processed foods that included additional ingredients aimed explicitly at aiding bodily function. The popularity of functional foods in Japan has spurred that emergence of a regulatory process to govern the industry in the country. Officially noted as Foods for Specified Health Use (FOSHU), the Japanese Ministry of Health has licensed approximately 100 FOSHU foods.

Functional Foods in the United States

While the presence of functional foods is widespread in the United States, there is no specific category recognized by the federal government. As food science has evolved over recent years, some organizations have taken note of this emerging market and worked to provide support and recognition of the industry. The Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board (IOM/FNB) has even introduced its definition of functional foods as “any food or food ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains.”

Health Benefits

Advancements in health science research have helped the scientific community to discover some of the benefits of functional foods. While many research studies are ongoing, numerous reports of clinical trials, in vivo, in vitro, and epidemiological studies have concluded that plant-based diets may help prevent chronic diseases.

Furthermore, there has been increasing recognition of the benefits of phytochemicals in the medical community. Companies have utilized research like this to help market food products developed to improve overall health.  And with the establishment of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA), messages that relate to health or disease could be printed directly on food labels for consumers to view.

The Functional Food Market

Business is booming! The functional food market was estimated to have a worldwide revenue of 300 billion US dollars in 2017, and that number is projected to increase to $440 billion over the next five years, according to statista.com. Bolstered by personalization and fragmentation, the functional food business has made tremendous gains as consumer sentiment has geared more toward taking control of the foods they eat. This trend is continuing to gain ground, and the functional food market is positioned to grow by its side.

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