In recent times advances in science have led to the development and dissemination of ‘functional foods’; standard food items that are somehow modified to add a supposed nutritional or health benefit.
It’s easy to spot these foods with just a quick stroll through a supermarket aisle. Bread fortified with folate, orange juice with extra calcium, yoghurt enriched with vitamins and pasta boosted with iron are just some examples.
Fermented foods (such as probiotic yoghurt) fall under the ‘functional foods’ banner.
The message is that you can essentially cheat your way to good health by eating a smaller range of foods than typically recommended.
For example, why eat broccoli to get iron when you could already get it from a bowl of pasta?
These products are highly marketable because they appear to make health convenient – you don’t have to worry about proper meal planning and balanced eating because you can just grab the bolstered food for instant effect.
But there is plenty of conjecture as to the value of ‘functional foods’. Many nutritionists say there is no substitute for a rounded and balanced diet and that many of the bonuses are unnecessary.
Others suggest it is a bit like trying to reinvent the wheel: what is the point of creating something as good as fruit and vegetables, when we already have fruit and vegetables?
A third problem is that ‘functional foods’ seem to oversimplify the interactions between components in food; interactions that are important to health.
It is not as simple as adding iron, for example, to a food item in isolation. Your body needs the components that surround iron in broccoli (for example) in order to metabolise it and reap its benefits.
As such, the question of whether these modified foods are good for you – or better for you than their unaltered counterparts – is very much up in the air.
One of the more positive arguments for ‘functional foods’ is that they may be able to fill dietary gaps that arise from food allergies.
For example, someone who is allergic to seafood may still be able to get a supply of Omega 3 fatty acid by consuming foods that are supplemented with it.
But that is a rare example and for the most part, ‘functional food’ is just a case of food companies promising something that they can’t deliver.