Functional Food Finds

Functional foods are "those foods that encompass potentially healthful products including any modified food or ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains," as defined by the Institute of Medicine. 

It all started decades ago simply enough: iodine added to salt to prevent goiters and Vitamin D added to milk. Or how about flouride added to toothpaste (although not a food) to prevent tooth decay? These were legitimate additions for improving everyone's health.
But now food companies are making all sorts of health claims on their packages in order to get you to buy them. Examples: Children's cereals saying that they improve children's focus and energy during school. Drinks touting their anti-oxidant properties. Labels shouting out: Probiotic! Heart healthy! Low in cholesterol!

There's been a bit of controversy of late because food manufacturers are going out of their way to promote and package their products as functional foods while pussy footing around the rules of the Food and Drug Administration. In an article this week in The New York Times, Foods With Benefits, or So They Say  speaks to those deceptive practices, how the FDA has come down on some companies with fines, and how the American public is being duped. Suffice it to say, the best way to get your nutrients is to eat whole, unprocessed foods. Always has been, always will. 

And yet here I am talking about a couple of "functional food" items I found at the Fancy Food Show last January. Consider the above a disclaimer for this post. While few can argue against the benefits of flax seed, some may still be wary of the claims of other  functional foods.

Some would argue our guiltiest food pleasures are wine and chocolate. But should we feel so guilty when we argue health benefits for either? And better yet, what if they are combined into one thing?

Such is Winetime bar, pairing the health benefits of dark chocolate with the potent antioxidant resveratrol from red wine and other powerful fruits. Winetime bars are vegan, gluten and dairy free, have 7-8 grams of fiber, and contain cranberry, noni, pomegranage, goji berry, acai, mangosteen and blueberry. It comes in two flavors:  Chocolate, Dates & Almonds and Chocolate-Raspberry.

Each bar supposedly contains more resveratrol than 50 glasses of red wine. Resveratrol is found in many dark skinned plants, but is especially significant in the skin of grapes. Scientific studies have been going on for decades and seem to indicate that it can help to decrease signs of aging and increase overall health.

Resveratrol is supposed to:

  • Protect cells from free radical damage
  • Inhibit the spread of cancer, especially prostate cancer
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Keep the heart healthy and improve elasticity in blood vessels
  • Normalize the body’s anti-inflammatory response
  • Slow down the signs of aging and help prevent Alzheimer’s disease

Readers know that I'm not a fan of fruit mixed with my chocolate, but this was not so bad, probably because it was more a fruit bar than a chocolate bar.  I preferred the one with dates and almonds.

Another food that everyone is supposed to add to their healthy diets is flax seed. Flax seed is an excellent source of fiber, but is also super high in Omega 3. Although it is better to get your Omegas from fish, the next best alternative is via flax.  I love Dr. Oz and he says that Omega 3 and 6 are possibly the most important nutrients you can supplement because they are so essential in the overall lubrication of the body. It helps to lubricate and reduce the inflammation in joints, is good for "skin, vision, brain, heart, helps lower bad cholesterol levels and even boosts fertility."

When it comes to actual flax seed, I've gotten many different kinds of ground flax in the market. Ground is better than whole because it's easier to mix into foods but it also makes it easier for the nutrients to be extracted. One brand, Premium Gold, has quite a range of flax products. But what I particularly like is that they also have a variety of grinds. The smallest is in their Dash o' Flax shaker which makes it easy to sprinkle onto your salads, soups, and other dishes. It's so fine that you really don't notice it all, it's flavorless, and so you've just added a bunch of healthy flax to your diet by simply sprinkling it. You can use the coarser grind of the Flakes o' Gold in things like smoothies or baking. 

It should be noted that flax is susceptible to heat and should be stored, once opened, in the refrigerator and used within a couple of months. The Premium Gold brand products are cold milled, thus preserving the integrity of the flax and its nutrients and thereby increasing the unrefrigerated shelf life up to 18 months. 

Flax is used as an egg substitute in vegan cooking. One egg is equal to one tablespoon of ground flax mixed with three tablespoons of water.

I would rather eat real butter than margarine, sugar than artificial sweetener. In that sense, you might call me a purist. I want natural ingredients versus artificially, man-made alternatives. When it comes to sweeteners, nature has provided alternatives to sugar. I just learned about one that I'll be researching more called yacon, but there is also agave and stevia. Stevia, in particular, has been popping up in those little packets in the sugar bowl next to the Extra, Splenda, and Sweet'N Low. 

Stevia is a plant that has been used in Paraguay for centuries. What makes it so amazing is that it is about 300 times as sweet as sugar and has virtually no impact on blood glucose levels. That means it's a great alternative for diabetics. The Japanese have been using stevia as a sugar substitute since the 1970's and it is has 40% of their sweetener market.

SweetLeaf's founder, Jim May, was the first to bring stevia to the attention of the FDA for approval in the 80's. Under pressure from competitors, it was not approved for import into the U.S.  There's a lot more to the story of it finally being accepted as a sweetener. Suffice it to say, politics as usual. But now it is available as a sweetener and is readily available through various companies. SweetLeaf, though, uses a process that takes "the highest-quality leaves of the stevia plant and extract(s) their naturally sweet taste with only cool, purified water – no chemicals, solvents or additives that adulterate and cover up the great taste created by nature." 

Stevia comes in powder form primarily. This makes it easy to measure out for recipes. But what I like about SweetLeaf is that they also have drops. In fact, they even have flavored drops. I like the ease of using drops for drinks, which is where I use stevia the most. I like to make lemonade with my huge numbers of lemons and I can lose any guilty feelings of drinking it because I'm not using cups of sugar to sweeten it. I bring lemons to work, squeeze them into my water mug and then squeeze a few drops of Lemon Drop liquid stevia in to sweeten it. I've never been a water fan, so this really helps me to drink more water through the day.

Currently the drops are not yet showing on their website, but are scheduled to be up in the next few weeks. They are available on Amazon. There are over a dozen flavors including plain, lemon, orange, chocolate, hazelnut, peppermint, and even English toffee. 

Disclaimer:I did receive samples of these products.