Along with new recipes, “functional foods also include a new way of production,” says Mary Mulry, Ph.D., technical consultant for the natural products industry. Similar to genetic engineering, functional foods may begin in the field with an altered crop long before the foodstuff ever makes it to the manufacturer’s kitchen (“Concepts in Functional Foods: A European Perspective,” by Marcel B. Roberfroid, Nutrition Today, July 1999, vol. 34). Mulry provides another example: feeding omega-3 fatty acid-rich grain to chickens that then lay omega-3-enriched eggs that can actually lower cholesterol.
So are these foods still natural when they’ve been so manipulated? “It depends,” Mulry answers. “They can be natural, or they can be organic. As long as the ingredients added are natural or organic, then they still meet that definition.”
Mulry notes, however, there are people who disagree with her on this issue. “There is a faction in the organic industry that believes organic foods shouldn’t be fortified with anything other than what’s required by law. So there is some controversy there.” However you view these foods, as freakish or futuristic, Mulry points out that “calcium-fortified orange juice is a way to get calcium in your diet if you’re not consuming enough dairy products.”
But don’t feel you have to jump on the functional foods bandwagon. While these products can be beneficial, they certainly are not the only means of achieving a healthy diet. “If you don’t want modified foods,” says Paul Lachance, Ph.D., professor of food science and nutrition at Rutgers University, “just buy [organic] fruits and vegetables.” He also reminds us that we can go into a store and buy the whole food ourselves. “You don’t have to pay a company to put psyllium into a cereal.”