Functional foods: Revolutionizing health through diet and innovation

Headshot of Mark Streer, SciBite

Embark on a journey through the transformative realm of functional foods, where the convergence of nature's wisdom and cutting-edge innovation is reshaping our approach to health. In the 21st century, these foods emerge as powerful allies, combating lifestyle diseases and ushering in a new era of well-being.

Healthy Super Food Selection

Understanding functional foods

People in the 21st century are living longer than ever before thanks to medical advances and reduced burden from infectious diseases. Consequently, our primary health concerns have shifted to lifestyle diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, along with age-related diseases such as arthritis and osteoporosis.

Pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers are refocusing their attention on how to combat these newest threats to our wellness and survival, while the public discourse increasingly turns to diet, nutrition, and other lifestyle factors as therapeutic targets. Science is taking the aphorism “you are what you eat” more seriously than ever, seeking to tap the wisdom of nature’s pharmacopeia.

What is a functional food?

One interesting category of ‘diet-as-medicine’ is functional foods, a category of foods that confer physiological benefits beyond energy and nutrition, typically related to health promotion and chronic disease prevention.

These roles are often intertwined: for example, calcium-rich foods can simultaneously promote health by reinforcing bone growth and density while protecting against reductions in bone mass that occur normally as part of the aging process.

Such foods owe their magic to specific ingredients, ranging from simple amino acids and oligopeptides to complex polysaccharides and fatty acids, to indigestible dietary fiber, fermentation products, and even live probiotic bacteria that foster good digestive health.

Functional foods have catapulted to the forefront of medical research, especially in studying the gut microbiome. The balance and distributions of different bacterial species in the digestive tract have been linked to a spectrum of health outcomes, from gastrointestinal disorders like Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, to broader impacts on mental well-being and energy levels.

SciBite already offers several vocabularies for researchers and industry professionals interested in different foodstuffs and active ingredients, such as the Food Ontology and ChEBI Chemical Entities of Biological Interest. Nevertheless, this burgeoning interest in functional foods alerted us to an unmet need: a specialized ontology and NER dictionary in the field.

Our Functional Foods VOCab was thus conceived, but important questions about its scope and content remained. Where could we turn for answers? Where better than Japan, a global leader in functional food innovation.

Handsome Asian Male Searching For Groceries From The List On His Mobile Phone

Japan’s pioneering role in functional food labeling

Japan was the first country to formally regulate the commercial labeling of functional foods, an initiative stemming from recognition of the important role food plays in health and well-being. Any company aspiring to such approval must first submit scientific evidence supporting its health claims. This evidence undergoes a rigorous assessment by the Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA), ensuring that only genuine and effective products earn the designation.

When it comes to labeling, the benchmark for excellence is “Foods for Specified Health Uses (FOSHU)” (特定保健用食品: tokutei hokenyō shokuhin, “tokuho” for short). Securing this designation demands an exhaustive application package, which is expected to include all relevant publications and internal studies demonstrating the product’s effectiveness and safety (along with summaries thereof), encapsulating in vitro metabolic research, in vivo animal studies, and randomized controlled trials within the Japanese population.

Requirements for FOSHU approval:

FOSHU Seal And Text_v3

Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

Navigating the functional foods landscape

Besides FOSHU, food manufacturers can opt for two alternative categories: “Foods with Nutrient Function Claims (FNFC)” (栄養機能食品: eiyō kinō shokuhin), which allows advertising of specific health benefits associated with certain nutrients, and “Foods with Functional Claims (FFC)” (機能性表示食品: kinōsei hyōji shokuhin), which allows labeling and marketing of products with health claims based on the manufacturer’s evidence without the need for pre-market approval, provided the CAA is informed and no medicinal claims are made.

The burgeoning interest in the FFC sector raises questions about the motivations driving it—whether companies are primarily concerned with public health and safety, or if the financial incentives and ease of market entry are the greater lure. Nevertheless, FOSHU stands apart as the gold standard in this evolving market, offering consumers confidence in rigorously vetted products substantiated by robust scientific evidence, thereby setting the benchmark for trust and efficacy in the functional foods industry.

FOSHU appeals to consumers by claiming to effectively support a specific dimension of health—such as improving gastrointestinal health and dental hygiene, reducing cholesterol and blood glucose levels, controlling hypertension, promoting mineral absorption and osteogenesis, and more—promises which, as the FOSHU seal testifies, have been vetted and backed by clinical evidence.

Note that the vast majority are only approved as “health-promoting”: the criteria for claims of disease prevention are much stricter, with only certain FOSHU containing calcium and folic acid qualifying at present (as protective against osteoporosis and neural tube defects during pregnancy, respectively).

Unrecognizable Woman Marvels At Grocery Bread Selection

Conclusion: FOSHU and you

Thus far, we’ve seen how functional foods redefine healthcare, offering solutions for chronic diseases through diet and nutrition. Emphasizing the blend of nature’s pharmacopeia with modern science, these foods are emerging as key players in health promotion.

In our next installment, we’ll explore Japan’s diverse FOSHU market and selected products in detail, along with introducing SciBite’s breakthrough Functional Foods VOCab. Stay tuned for deeper insights into the evolving world of functional foods and their applications.


About Mark Streer

Scientific Curator (Japanese), SciBite

Mark Streer has been a Scientific Curator in SciBite’s Ontologies Team since 2021, specializing in Japanese language integration. Leveraging his expertise at the nexus of biomedical research and technical translation, he brings to the table extensive knowledge of English and Japanese scientific terminology, along with enthusiasm for applying cutting-edge ML/AI technologies to ontology curation, software development, and linguistic solutions.

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