What is functional food and which are the characteristics it must have to be defined as such? This is such a simple and instinctive question that it may sound obvious; however, the answer will be not really complicated, but rather complex.
Many have tried to answer this question, at different level of knowledge, especially in terms of scientific expertise. However, medical science as well as nutritional science have also given some indications, have reached compromises and agreed on definitions that can somehow be applied as real rules to make a rather convincing and certain distinction between functional food and food.
The neat line between these two concepts has been drawn. What is still lacking is the set of rules that factually and juridically regulate the ways in which this neat line can and must be crossed, i.e. the “international passport” that is valid for any “passenger” who carries food and its real and established “functionality” in his luggage.
Let us take a concrete example: the European Union has not made laws on this subject yet. Maybe one day it will do so, but for now there is (quite a lot of) room for anarchy and smuggling. The market is bursting with food that is defined and promoted as “functional”, according to methods and claims that are so varied and mismatched to often appear weird. In other cases, they are dramatically fraudulent.
However, the concept is absolute: functionality is for food what health is for health. By this four-letter word – few but essential letters – I mean anything one eats and drinks to live, every day, every year, all through his/her life.
Let us have a look at some quotes. “A food can be regarded as functional if it is scientifically demonstrated to affect beneficially one or more target functions in the body, beyond adequate nutritional effects in a way which is relevant to either the state of well-being and health and/or the reduction of the risk of a disease” (Consensus Meeting on Scientific Concept of Functional Foods – European Commission of Functional Food Science in Europe, Madrid, 1999). This quote has been taken from Professor Carlo Cannella’s distinguished study, Department of Medical Physiopathology, Nutritional Science, The Sapienza University of Rome.
Again, here are foods that can be regarded as functional:
- natural foods;
- foods to which a component has been added;
- foods from which a component has been removed;
- foods in which the characteristics of one or more components have been modified;
- foods in which the bioavailability of one or more components has been modified;
- any combination of the above options.
(Roberfroid N.B., B.J.N. (2002), 88, Suppl. 2, S133-S138)
Based on the above quotes, the aswer to the initial question seems to be clear and convincing, as well as the indication of what can be and/or must be done to turn natural foods into functional. In a nutshell, what we should know and recognize is the simplicity of the “functional food” concept.
When we explore the market, in a general and generic way, to see how this concept is factually interpreted and managed, we find out that the functionality of foods has acquired varied profiles, sometimes slightly blended, some other times so pronounced to appear even ridiculous. There are all sorts of products: serious, humorous, ranging from science to magic, from holy to profane, from spell to mask. Obviously pasta is no exception, even though it still remains at a certain distance from this farce.
Yes, I admit, I may have gone too far, but – in any case – I think I can conclude by saying that there is some confusion that can be clearly and strongly perceived. So ? Well, I could think that it would be nice and useful if ideas and purposes were clarified as far as functional foods are concerned, especially the most familiar for us (pasta). How?
There are so many experiences, skills and so many knowledgeable people who could start exchanging their views and co-operating to make things clear, to put into effect scientific principles and guidelines, adding their wisdom, tradition knowledge as well as the awareness of experience, which is what common people mostly appreciate and perceive, even unconsciously.