Functional Foods: Genesis, Current Status and Scope

Increasing awareness levels about fitness and health

Increasing awareness levels about fitness and health, spurred by media coverage are prompting majority of people to live healthier lifestyles, exercise more, and eat healthy. The expanding food processing market indicates that end users are seeking minimally processed food with extra nutritional benefits and organoleptic value. This development, in turn, is propelling expansion in the processing markets globally. The emerging healthy food industry seems destined to occupy the landscape in the new millennium. Its tremendous growth has implications for the food, pharmaceutical, healthcare, and agricultural industries. Global trends to healthy food products cannot be reversed. Companies taking the lead by investing strategically in science, product development, marketing and consumer education will not go unrewarded.

The term ‘functional or health food’ is sometimes used to describe foods and drinks that are enriched with particular nutrients or substances that have the potential to positively influence health over and above their basic nutritional value. Functional foods are usually similar to foods that are consumed as part of our usual diet e.g. yogurt, drinks, bread. A functional ingredient can be defined as a dietary ingredient that affects its host in a targeted manner so as to exert positive effects that justify certain health claims. In other words, foods containing these ingredients (functional foods) are foods that have health promoting properties over and above their nutritional value.

The term ‘functional foods’ can be viewed as encompassing a very broad range of products, ranging from foods generated around a particular functional ingredient (e.g. stanols-/sterol-enriched reduced/low fat spreads, and dairy products containing probiotic bacteria), to staple everyday foods fortified with a nutrient that would not usually be present to any great extent (e.g. folic acid fortified bread or breakfast cereals; omega 3 fatty acids from fish oils added to bread or baked beans).

Health claims are often made about functional foods and legislation exists to protect consumers from misleading claims. A health claim is a claim made on food that states, suggests or implies that a relationship exists between a health benefit and a food category, a food or one of its constituents. It is important to assess each individual food on its own merit. In particular, it is crucial that robust science exists to underpin the claims being made. Typically, this will include evidence that the substance is absorbed or reaches its site of action; that consumption of the food beneficially influences a physiological function in humans (e.g. blood pressure) or a biomarker recognised to impact on health (e.g. blood cholesterol) and, ideally, that this effect has a direct impact on health status.

The level of consumption of the food that is required to achieve a beneficial effect on health is an important consideration. In particular, it should be possible to achieve the required level of intake of the functional food or ingredient within normal dietary patterns. Functional foods may provide benefits in health terms, but should not be seen as an alternative to a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. In order to maximise health and well-being, people should be encouraged to avoid smoking, do plenty of physical activity and have a varied diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables. Functional foods do not provide a miracle solution to health problems but may be useful to some people as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

A possible disadvantage of functional foods from a health education point of view is that they may obscure the boundaries between food groups (normally defined by the specific selection of nutrients that foods in each group provide). This inevitably influences the ease with which simple and practical dietary advice can be formulated. At the same time, functional foods are a good example of the advances made by industry in food technology and development. Some functional foods could also be considered to be fortified foods, and vice versa.


Probiotics are defined as live microorganisms – mostly bacteria – which when taken in adequate amounts confer a health benefit. Foods containing probiotic bacteria have been consumed for thousands of years and over time have developed a reputation for promoting health.

Traditionally, bacteria have been used for the production of fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut. However, most of the bacterial strains that have been used for many centuries don’t survive well in the gut – which is vital for any beneficial effect on health to take place. Specific bacterial strains (mainly Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species) have been found to be more resistant and are more able to survive passage through the gut into the large bowel. Many of these probiotic bacterial strains are now added to foods (e.g. dairy products), or are available as supplements in the form of capsules or sachets.

Only when a sufficient number of bacteria survive this journey, and are able to thrive and grow in numbers in the large bowel, can they begin to influence the composition of the intestinal flora. This is the name for the very large numbers of bacteria that live naturally within the large bowel, and the intestinal flora has relatively recently been recognised to contribute to our health and well-being in a number of ways. The types of bacteria present in the large bowel can influence our health both positively and negatively.

There is a growing evidence that a regular intake of probiotics may positively influence our health. Their way of acting on our body is very complex and so not all the benefits for our health are well established, and further research in this field is required. Yet, some studies have delivered promising results. Probiotics seem to positively influence digestive health.

Studies have shown that probiotics can reduce the mean duration of diarrhoea in patients with an infectious form of diarrhoea. There is also some evidence that probiotics may help prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhoea (sometimes antibiotic treatment can disrupt the balance of intestinal bacteria). Research has also shown a beneficial effect in patients suffering from chronic constipation. The role of probiotics in irritable bowel syndrome – a disorder characterised by abdominal pain, excessive flatulence, variable bowel habit and abdominal bloating – is not yet clear, but studies suggest that a regular intake of probiotics may decrease the symptoms in some people. However, further research is still needed.

A frequent claim made on products containing probiotics is that they stimulate the immune system. An increasing number of studies seem to support these claims, but the mechanisms to explain these effects are as yet unclear. Related to this, there is also some emerging evidence that probiotics may help prevent the development of some allergic diseases, such as atopic dermatitis (an allergic skin reaction) in childhood. However, to date research findings have been inconsistent, and more research is needed before firm conclusions can be made.

In summary, there is already some evidence that foods and drinks (such as yogurts and related products) containing probiotics can make a valuable contribution to our daily diet, provided they are consumed regularly and that the bacteria contained are able to reach the large bowel successfully. But as is often the case in nutrition research, more studies are needed to confirm the strength of evidence about these health effects, in particular the mechanisms by which these products act. Probiotics have been consumed safely by millions of people for many years. There have also been a large number of dietary trials in humans investigating the potential health benefits of probiotics, with no reported adverse effects linked to infections. Thus, whilst the benefits of probiotics for our health may require further study, their intake can be considered as safe.


The term prebiotic was first used in 1995 and can be defined as a non-digestible food ingredient that can deliver beneficial effects on health by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of specific health-promoting bacteria in the colon. In other words, prebiotics promote the growth of particular bacteria in the gut that are beneficial to intestinal health (for example Lactobacillus sp., Bifidobacteria sp. and Lactococcus sp.). They also inhibit the growth of bacteria that are potentially harmful to intestinal health (for example bacteria that produce toxins such as Clostridia and Escherichia coli).  

This is in contrast to probiotics, which are live bacteria capable of journeying through the gut into the large bowel. By helping increase the amount of ‘good’ bacteria, prebiotics are thought to promote a healthy environment in the intestine and so could potentially have health benefits.

The main types of prebiotics are fructo-oligosaccharides, e.g. inulin, and oligofructose and lacto-oligosaccharides, e.g. lactulose, galacto-oligosaccharides and lactosucrose. Foods naturally containing substances with prebiotic properties include leeks, chicory, asparagus, bananas, artichokes, garlic, onion, wheat, soybean and oats, and more recently some honeys have been suggested to have prebiotic properties. Sometimes foods with prebiotic properties are added to foods and are referred to as ‘functional foods’. Prebiotic-containing foods can be found in supermarkets and include, for example, some cheese products, yogurts and yogurt drinks, breakfast cereals and cereal bars.

Regular consumption of prebiotics has been suggested to have a wide range of potential health benefits including aiding mineral absorption (e.g. calcium), improving immune function, reducing blood cholesterol levels, playing a role in cancer prevention and helping to relieve constipation and irritable bowel syndrome. However, the strength of the evidence is stronger for some of these claims than others and further research in humans is required to determine whether some of these benefits exist when prebiotic-containing foods are consumed as part of a normal diet. To date, the most promising areas are calcium absorption and immune system effects.

There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating a positive effect of prebiotics on the intestinal flora in infants by increasing the number of ‘good’ bacteria in the gut. Accumulating research suggests that prebiotic infant formulas may help to alleviate conditions such as atopic dermatitis (allergic skin condition), constipation and also to reduce the risk of infection in early life.

Table: Category of functional foods

Type Definition  Example

Fortified products        A food fortified with additional nutrients       Fruit juices fortified with vitC

Enriched products       A food with added new nutrients not usually found          Margarine with plant sterol

ester, probiotics, prebiotic

Altered products A food from which a deleterious componenthas been removed, reduced or replaced withanother substance with beneficial effects      Fibers as fat releasers in meat or

icecream products

Non-altered products  Foods naturally containing increased contentof nutrients or component          Natural foods

Enhanced products      A food which one of the component has beennaturally enhanced through special growingconditions, new feed composition, geneticmanipulation or otherwise.  Eggs with increased omega-3

content achieved by altered

chicken feed



Table: Examples of famous key ingredients explored

Ingredient  Source        Functions

Lycopene   Tomato products         Reduce the risk of prostate cancer

Beta-glucan         Oats, barley        Reduce cardiovascular disease, lower LDL, and total

cholesterol risks

Omega-3 Fatty Acids –

DHA/EPA         Fish oils     Reduce cardiovascular disease, and improve mental


Catechins  Tea   Neutralize free radicals and reduce cancer risk

Isoflavones          Soy-based products     Reduce cardiovascular disease, lower LDL, and total

cholesterol risks

Flavones    Flax seed   Neutralize free radicals and reduce cancer risk

Lactobacillus      Yoghurt     Improve quality of intestinal microflora



Dietary factors play a very important role in disease appearance, progression and morbidity. Use of food as medicine is not a recent development. Fortification of table salt with iodine and fortification of wheat flour with iron has been done with specific aim of prevention of goitre and anaemia for many years. The relationship between diet and health has provided impetus to the demand of nutraceuticals or functional foods.

Current Scenario

The Indian nutraceutical market valued at $ 1,480 million in 2011 is expected to touch $ 2,731 million by 2016. According to a report by business research and consulting firm, functional foods will be the quickest growing category followed by dietary supplements until 2020. However, dietary supplements, specifically herbal and dietetic supplements, will form the greatest opportunity areas for nutraceutical manufacturers and at present dietary supplements are the largest category accounting for 64 per cent of nutraceuticals market. This market is driven primarily by the pharmaceutical sector in the form of vitamin and mineral supplements. As per the study, the global nutraceutical market was estimated to be $ 149.5 billion in 2011 with US, Europe and Japan being the largest regional markets, accounting for nearly 93 per cent of the global nutraceutical demand. As these markets are nearing maturity, with exceedingly high per capita spends on nutraceutical products, nutraceutical manufacturers are looking at developing countries such as India and China as key growth regions.

Currently Indian nutraceuticals market is highly urban centric. However, with the rise of rural market and if the growth trajectory remains the same, Indian nutraceuticals market is going to be more than double of current market within next five years or by the end of current decade may become five-fold since the beginning of decade. Currently functional foods enjoys largest share of the Indian nutraceuticals market followed by dietary supplements. This trend will drive the market for fortified foods and pro-biotic. With the rise of lifestyle related diseases in urban India and penetration in rural India, the demand for nutraceuticals products is going to remain high. Though having a healthy size of health-conscious consumer segment in India, still the market has not adopted nutraceuticals for regular consumption. Indian consumers are still at ‘awareness’ or somewhat ‘interest’ stage of product adoption cycle.

Scope in India

It is the wish of all people to live healthy. It is natural that people’s focus is shifting from medical treatment for sickness to a positive approach for prevention of diseases to stay healthy. In order to prevent diseases and be healthy, new food products, which have been proven by the human trials to be effective to prevent diseases, should gradually penetrate the society. This will improve quality of life of all people. India is currently a nascent market for nutraceuticals, without a concrete business model in place. Both MNCs as well as domestic companies in the pharmaceutical, food and beverage space have tested the market with a variety of launches, with some success. This has resulted in increased product launches in the recent past. However, in terms of ingredients, especially in the case of plant extracts and phytochemicals, Indian companies have entrenched their place as suppliers, both locally as well as globally.

Globalisation of the nutraceutical and functional foods industries presents significant challenges to stakeholders, not the least of which is the regulatory variance between countries active in the marketplace. Hence, when any new participant wants to enter the Indian nutraceutical market, it is very important to comply with the regulatory framework, so that the business is run smoothly.

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