An Introduction to Functional Foods

Fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and more add color and nutritional value to meals.
Fruits and vegetables on cutting board

When adding good health to your shopping list, remember this quote by Hippocrates: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

While there is no “magic” food that can easily solve a complex health problem, there are many common, everyday foods that can repair damage from the normal aging process, environmental pollutants, smoking, and poor dietary habits. 

The great news? These functional foods are all found within the grocery store or market.

Start with the produce section. The variety of colors in fresh fruits and vegetables may indicate the foods are high in antioxidants, which help heal and protect the body from free radicals. A few of these functional foods high in antioxidants include:

  • Carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, apricots, spinach and tomatoes, which are all sources of beta-carotene. Beta-carotene acts as an antioxidant to support healthy tissue repair.
  • Citrus fruit, spinach, collards, asparagus, broccoli and green beans are good sources of both lutein and zeaxanthin. A diet rich in lutein and zeaxanthin is important for maintaining eye health.
  • Tomatoes, grapefruit, papaya, and watermelon are sources of lycopene; which is needed for prostate health.
  • Blueberries, cherries, and red grapes are known to be sources of flavonoids, specifically anthocyanins. These can play an important role by acting as antioxidant, reducing inflammation, and also help to maintain healthy brain function.

Beyond the produce aisle, it’s important to know how to choose healthy grains as you peruse the aisles. Not all grains are created equal, and over-processed grains can contribute to health issues rather than help. Some sources of healthy grains include: 

  • Whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, and brown rice. These whole whole-grains may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and certain cancers.
  • Barley, rye, oat bran, oatmeal and oat flour. These grains are sources of beta glucan, which may be beneficial in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease.

Like healthy grains, healthy fats are an essential part of a balanced diet. Not all fats are created equal. Healthy fats include: 

  • Olive oil, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and canola oil are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • Salmon, tuna, and fish oils are sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fatty acids. These foods may reduce the risk of heart disease, help maintain eye health, and can protect mental function.

Unexpected functional foods include: 

  • Cocoa, red wine, tea, and chocolate also contain antioxidants and flavonoids. These can play a role in health by supporting urinary tract health and heart health.

Now that you have all these power foods in your cart, easily incorporate them into your diet by making simple changes at each meal:

Breakfast: Add berries to cereal or yogurt. Add berries to oatmeal for a way to incorporate two functional food choices.

Lunch: Add a functional food to staple dishes. For example, top a sandwich with spinach and tomatoes. For salads: add strawberries and broccoli or asparagus. Try an olive oil based dressing such as olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic.

Dessert: Good news! Functional foods can even fit into this category. Strawberries and dark chocolate are great options.

Gordon Food Service customers: the recipes below are great ways to include functional foods within the diet.


  • International Food Information Council Foundation. Background on Functional Foods.

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