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Position Paper: Functional Foods

It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to recognize that although all

foods provide some level of physiological function, the term functional foods is defined as whole

foods along with fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect

on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on

significant standards of evidence. The Academy supports Food and Drug Administration

approved health claims on food labels when based on rigorous scientific substantiation.

This position was in effect from February 1, 2011 until December 31st, 2016. The

Academy authorizes replication of the position, in its entirety, provided full and proper credit is

given. Authors:Kristi M. Crowe, PhD, RD, LD (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa); Coni

Francis, PhD, RD (University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO).

In order to prevent confusion within the public of what a food item being labeled as a

functional food should consist of, and to discuss the definition and progressive research of

functional foods is the main purpose of this position statement. In order for a food item to

qualify as a functional food, by the standard of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the food

item must be either a whole food, fortified food, enriched food or enhanced food.(1) Food items

that qualify as functional foods contain nutrients and non nutrient compounds that provide

potentially beneficial health benefits beyond basic nutrition. These food items, however, must be

consumed as part of a varied diet, on a regular basis, and in quantities appropriate for gaugeable


There are different categories of foods marketed as functional foods, as well as varying

regulations and definitions of functional foods throughout the world. Within the United States

functional foods fall into three general categories these include: conventional foods

(vegetables ,grains ,fruits ,dairy, fish, and meats). These foods contain naturally occurring

beneficial compounds, for example, carotenoids found within carrots, or the antioxidants found

in orange juice.(1) Next, there are modified foods; these foods have been fortified with nutrients or

other beneficial ingredients associated to disease prevention and treatments. Lastly, there is the

category of synthesized food ingredients, such as indigestible carbohydrates.(1) Within the United

States dietary supplements and medical foods are not considered functional foods because they

are not food items, rather man made formulas and supplements.(1)

Functional Foods have no consistent definition that is recognized globally therefore, the

term functional foods is considered a marketing coin by many. Within the United States there

are various factors that are driving the functional food market these include: rising health care

costs and the growing trend to self-medicate to lower health care costs, the increasing age of the

American population, the obesity epidemic, and the high levels of lifestyle diseases.(1) Functional

foods are a popular food trend that is predicted to continue to grow. As consumers within the

United States today tend to focus more on pain-free living and healthy options while choosing

groceries. (1) It is also important to remember that the definition of health today is no longer just

absence of disease but, optimization of physical and mental well-being. (1)

As far as the regulation of functional foods goes Japan is and has been the leader for quite

some time. In fact, the Japanese Ministry of Labor and Health was the first agency to recognize

functional foods as a unique food category.(1) However, within the United States there is no

provision for a definition of functional foods within the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of

1938.(1) This is due to the fact that functional foods are already regulated in very safe and specific

manners because they are already being processed as food items. The thought is that they do not

need to be regulated separately from regular food ingredients, as they are already carefully


Scientific substantiation of functional foods is also discussed. Scientific research has

been, and is currently, being conducted to effectively establish bioavailability and efficacy of

these non-nutrient compounds within functional foods. The Academy supports the rigorous

scientific research done by the Food and Drug Administration and the concept from this research

that some food components not considered nutrients in the traditional sense contain health

benefits and foods with these components are considered to be functional foods. (1) The methods

that are being used in order to discover bioavailability and efficacy of these non-nutrient

compounds within functional foods range from soft to hard science. Once the bioavailability of a

functional food is established there are studies employed to observe the efficacy of these

compounds. (1) Double-blind, placebo-controlled studies clinical studies are what researchers find

most beneficial for determining the efficacy and safety of these foods. (1)

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists have multiple opportunities and roles when it comes to

the development of the food category functional foods. New issues exist that call for an RDN

some include: conveying reliable information to consumers about functional foods, working with

policy makers to develop regulation of functional foods, and also becoming involved with the

research and development of various functional food compounds. (1) With the market of

functional foods expanding food is no longer seen as just macro and micro nutrients. There are

many other factors when it comes to what makes up a food and it is very important that the RDN

and RDT remain THE nutrition expert. It is important for the RDN to be able to be a conduit of

the current information and research of functional foods to the public.


In my opinion this position is valid and well backed with reliable science. Not only to the

authors state the opinion of the Academy, they provide sufficient detail on research being

conducted and evidence that has been produced in regard to functional foods. It is also stated that

the Academy supports the FDAs rigorous scientific research when it comes to the information

on food labels. This lets the reader know that the information is reliable. The authors also do a

very good job of stating why it is important that RDNs are knowledge about functional foods.

Explaining how the market of functional foods is growing and the various roles that the RDN

could possibly have in this process made the position stronger.

I do however believe that the European Commission has a better working definition of

functional foods than the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. I agree with the Academys

position wholeheartedly however the European Commission has a very specific definition. The

European Commissions working definition of functional foods is A food that beneficially

affects one or more target functions in the body, beyond adequate nutritional affects, in a way

that is relevant to either an improved state of health and well being and/or reduction of risk of

disease. It is part of a normal food pattern. It is not a pill, a capsule or any form of dietary

supplement.(1) The reason that I think that this working definition is better is because it is more

concise and detailed. It is important, in my opinion, to include the statement not a dietary

supplement within the definition to one hundred percent avoid confusion within the public of

what a functional food is.

1. Crowe KM, Francis C. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Functional Foods.

J. Acad. Nutr. Diet. 2013;113: 10961103.