Yesterday one of my friends sent me her food journal so I could take a look and see if she could make any nutritional “improvements.” Her day went something like this… Breakfast: rinsed down a multi-vitamin pill with enriched orange juice. Ate a bowl of fortified cereal, with vitamin-D fortified soy milk. Snack: A quick, energy nutrition bar Lunch: A calcium-fortified soup, with iron-enriched bread Snack: vitamin-C enriched fruit leather, and a multivitamin fortified yogurt. and the day continued a less un-enriched and un-fortified foods… Many of the foods she chose to eat are categorized as “functional foods.” There is no true definition of a functional food, but basically it is any food or dietary component that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.  A fortified food has had nutrients added that were not naturally found in the food. An enriched food means adding back nutrients that were lost in the processing. So should we all be eating functional foods? The answer is maybe. In all actuality, many of us consume these foods without making a conscious decision to do so. It is ironic, that in a country which offers a plethora of a variety of foods, that the market continues to grow with enriched and fortified versions of food. In addition, we also have a plethora of foods which lack nutrients, are highly-refined, and are calorie-dense. A diet high in these foods could lead to lower levels of important micronutrients such as vitamin A, C, and E; calcium, magnesium; and potassium. Researchers are also finding out that we might need more of certain nutrients than currently recommended, like vitamin D. So maybe some of these foods can help? Yes, functional foods may offer some benefit to those who don’t meet their nutritional needs. But, we can also get too much of a good thing. In addition, getting these micronutrients from superfoods (mentioned in the last blog), might be an even better answer. Whole foods, such as blueberries,  contain potential phytochemicals that we haven’t even begun to identify, and nutrients in foods work synergistically to improve health. There is also a concern with OD-ing on these products. Iron, for example, is one of the most overdosed mineral in a child’s diet. There is also a potential for getting too much vitamin A. The upper limit for vitamin A is 10,000 International Units (IU)  and too much vitamin A can actually become toxic at levels of 25,000 IU. So what recommendations to my friend about her diet did I offer other than a reminder that my services aren’t free? (: We discussed the fact that the micronutrients in the individual functional foods she consumed each only met ~10-25% of the daily value she needed for a day.  Therefore, there was little concern she was going to induce any toxicity. I also brought to her attention the higher costs associated with many of the functional foods and how she might get more bang for her buck both nutritionally and financially by shopping at the farmer’s market on Saturday. The take home lesson once again was eating in a manner of balance, moderation, and variety!

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.