Functional Foods:  What you need to know

By Emily Foster, RD


‘Functional foods’ is a topic that most Dietitian’s are familiar with, however with companies constantly developing new products this whole area can be overwhelming. There is no doubt the global Functional Foods and Natural Health Products (FFNHP) market will continue to rise, predictions range from an annual growth rate of 8-14% (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2014).


Functional foods are often described as foods that have a health benefit beyond standard nutrition because they contain a bioactive, or naturally occurring compound, that acts on our bodies. These foods are meant to be consumed as a normal part of the diet (University of Guelph, 2012). Natural Health Products, or ‘NHPs’, are often grouped with functional foods when in conversation, however it is important to remember that there is a distinct difference between the two. NHPs are defined as vitamins and minerals, herbal remedies, traditional medicines, probiotics and other products like amino acids and essential fatty acids (Health Canada, 2014). 


Functional foods can be placed into three broad categories:

1. A basic food that naturally contains the bioactive, like oatmeal.

2. Processed foods with added bioactives, these do not occur in the food naturally. A good example is calcium enriched orange juice or plant sterols in yogurt.

3. Enhanced foods which have their naturally occurring bioactives enhanced, such as a yogurt with an increased level of probiotics.

(University of Guelph, 2012)


In 2012 a survey reported that 98% of respondents had purchased a functional food or beverage in the previous 12 months. Cereals, healthy snack foods, yogurt and juices were among the most popular functional foods. The most common bioactives sought in these food items were: fibre, vitamins and minerals (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2014). Below is a list of some common functional foods found in the grocery store today:


Functional foods play an important role in the average consumers diet. This is because the trend for massive dietary changes are being replaced by simple swaps and substitutions. In fact, swapping for a healthier version of the same food (e.g. switching to a whole grain bread) is the most practiced healthy shopping strategy (Sloan, 2012). Unlike NHPs which are usually found in the ‘natural’ or pharmaceutical section of grocery stores, functional foods are distributed around the whole store. As a result the number of functional food items finding their way into the consumers’ shopping basket appears to be increasing.


In conclusion, with the continued growth of the FFNHP market, as Dietitian’s and consumers we must remain knowledgeable about the variety of functional foods available in the marketplace and the role they play.



Smoothies can be a great way to add functional foods to your life.  Checkout Janice Abbott's Smoothie Station for ways to add funcational foods to smoothies. 





Department of Health and Nutritional Sciences, University of Guelph (2012). Functional Foods for Healthy Aging: A toolkit for Registered Dietitians. Available at:


Health Canada (2014). Natural Health Products. Available at: prodnatur/index-eng.php.


Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (2014). Opportunities and Challenges Facing the Canadian Functional Foods and Natural Health Products Sector. Available at: industry-markets-and-trade/food-regulations/food-policy-and-regulatory-issues/reports-andresources/opportunities-and-challenges-facing-the-canadian-functional-foods-and-naturalhealth-products-sector/?id=1410206902299.


PEN (2011). Functional Foods/Nutraceuticals Hemp: Background. Available at: http://


Beck, L. (2012). ‘What’s ‘smart pasta’? Is it healthier than the regular stuff?’, The Globe and Mail (Online) Available at:


Sloan, L. (2012). ‘Top 10 Functional Food Trends’, Food Technology 66(4) (Online) Available at:

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