Functional Food, Nutraceuticals and Bioactive Compounds
Updated: May 27, 2022
Written by Dietitian Angie,
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Daniela Steyn
Does every food have a function? Yes, every food we eat performs a role in the body, but some foods have more benefits than others. Food contains macro and micronutrients that perform functions in the body. Macronutrients form the bulk of our diets and provide the body with energy, muscle and tissue repair and skin, brain and eye health and organ protection. Our bodies require micronutrients in smaller amounts and are broken down into three categories: vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. These micronutrients do not provide the body with calories. Still, they have a supportive role in growth and development, immune protection, energy formation and many other critical roles in the body.
Functional foods may be anti-inflammatory or have cardio protective properties, be immune promoting, or crucial in shaping the gut microbiota. Others have antidiabetic, anti-arthritic, neuroprotective, antihypertensive, antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-cancer, cholesterol-lowering, and hormone metabolic properties. In comparison, others are less beneficial and can even be pro-inflammatory. Bioactive compounds give foods these health-beneficial properties.
Functional foods, nutraceuticals, and bioactive compounds have been of interest for many decades. But they have also caused a lot of confusion for the consumer. I want to attempt to clarify these complex concepts.
When functional foods have been marketed, you may have heard the words "miracle" or "super" foods, but we urge you to be cautious of such claims as no food may be described as such.
Due to a lack of global consensus on meaning, The Bureau of Nutritional Sciences of the Food Directorate of Canada proposes the following definitions (Health Canada):
"A nutraceutical is a product isolated or purified from foods generally sold in medicinal forms not usually associated with food. A nutraceutical demonstrates a physiological benefit or protects against chronic disease."
"A functional food is similar in appearance to, or maybe, a conventional food, is consumed as part of a usual diet, and is demonstrated to have physiological benefits and or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions."
Even though the law does not define functional foods and nutraceuticals, the Food and Drug Administration (all foods and drugs in Canada fall under the FDA) regulates these foods.
What is a bioactive compound?
Bioactive compounds are the parts of functional foods that provide and enhance beneficial health effects to the body when consumed. Simply put, bioactive compounds (also known as phytochemicals or phytonutrients - when specifically coming from plants), are the part of the functional food that makes it functional and gives health benefits to our bodies when we eat them. These compounds also include prebiotics, probiotics, synbiotics (combination of prebiotics and probiotics), and postbiotics (the by-product of a probiotic).
Without these bioactive compounds, the functional food would not have beneficial health effects because the chemical compound targets the mechanisms that prevents and treats disease. There are more th