"Functional food" is loosely defined by many health experts as a food that may have a positive effect on health, beyond basic nutrition. For example, salmon is rich in omega-3 fats that are linked with improved triglyceride levels and decreased heart attack risk. Similarly, yogurt may contain probiotic bacteria that aids digestion and supports the immune system. Oats, rich in soluble fiber, may lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, and decrease heart disease risk. And cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and kale, contain phytonutrients that may lower the risk of some types of cancer.
Functional foods also include those that have been fortified or altered to offer additional health benefit, such as calcium-fortified juices for bone health. These examples may be familiar to you, but what about other, less well-known functional foods?
What it is. Brewer's yeast is inactivated, meaning it is not alive, and cannot be used to make dough rise. When it comes to health, however, brewer's yeast is far from inactive. (Note that brewer's yeast is usually a by-product of the brewing industry and should not be confused with nutritional yeast, as they have different nutritional profiles.)
Why it's good for you. This food is nearly pure protein--about 70% of its calories come from this muscle-building nutrient. Brewer's yeast provides 8 grams of protein and 45 calories in 2 tablespoons. It's also loaded with B vitamins, and offers a savory, "salty" taste, without any sodium.
How to use it. Try brewer's yeast sprinkled on popcorn or add it to soups, stews, and casseroles. Many recipes for vegan "mac and cheese" use brewer's yeast as well, which gives a rich, "cheesy" flavor, without the cheese.
What they are. Chia seeds are oil seeds; they can be processed to create chia oil. However, some of the best health benefits come from eating the seeds themselves.
Why they're good for you. Chia seeds are loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fats and soluble fiber, They are a powerhouse of minerals too: 1 ounce provides more than half the daily value for calcium and zinc, the entire daily value for magnesium, and plenty of iron--about 43% of the daily value for women and nearly 100% for men.
How to use them. Chia seeds can be eaten straight from the cupboard--no refrigeration needed. Add chia to cookies and muffins for crunch and nutritional value. To make the nutrients more absorbable, try chia "gel." Mix 1/3 to 1/2 cup of seeds with about 2 cups water. Place in the refrigerator, and within 10 minutes, your gel will be ready. Place a few teaspoons into yogurt or oatmeal, or mix into juice. Chia gel is nearly tasteless, so most people find it very easy to incorporate into their daily routine. Store chia gel in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
What they are. Flaxseeds are oil seeds, and flax oil is promoted as a heart-healthy option. However, because the oil breaks down at high temperatures, it cannot be used for stovetop cooking, such as stir-frying or sauteing. The seeds can be easier to use, and offer more nutritional bang for the buck.
Why they're good for you. Flaxseeds are a great source of omega-3 fats and soluble fiber, plus potassium and magnesium. These little nutritional powerhouses are one of the only dietary sources of lignans, a group of phytonutrients that have been linked to lower risk of several types of cancer, notably breast and prostate cancers.
How to use them. To absorb the nutrients in flax, grind the whole seeds first--a coffee grinder works well. Stir 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds into oatmeal or yogurt, or add to fruit smoothies. Flaxseeds will "gel" and thicken up quickly, so drink your smoothie sooner rather than later. Use ground flaxseeds to boost the nutritional value of muffins, bread, and cookies too. Store ground seeds in the freezer for up to a month.
Apple cider vinegar
What it is. As the name implies, apple cider vinegar is vinegar made from fermented apple cider or juice. It is similar in nutritional value to other types of vinegar.
Why it's good for you. Some research suggests apple cider vinegar can slow the rate of stomach emptying, which may help people feel full longer, eat fewer calories, and have steadier, healthier blood sugar levels. As a home remedy, some people find that applying apple cider vinegar to the skin can help manage acne, and it has been touted by some in the haircare profession as a way to clean residue from hair follicles.
How to use it. Apple cider vinegar is a great way to add flavor and "brightness"--that comes from the acidity--to salads, marinades, and dressings. To use topically, start with diluted apple cider vinegar--try half vinegar and half water--and apply to the skin using a clean cotton ball. If tolerated, increase up to 100% apple cider vinegar as a skin tonic.
What it is. Ginger is a fragrant spice made from the rhizome--similar to the bulb of a tulip or iris--of the ginger plant. Ginger is used chopped or powdered for cooking, and can be preserved in syrup or candied.
Why it's good for you. Ginger is well known for it's anti-nausea and anti-motion sickness properties. It is one of the few natural remedies that actually can work to prevent and alleviate certain types of nausea, including mild nausea associated with pregnancy or after receiving anesthesia for surgery, and mild motion sickness.
How to use it. Ginger tea can be made from purchased tea bags, or you can make your own by gently boiling two tablespoons chopped ginger in 10 ounces of water for about 10 minutes; strain out ginger pieces, stir in a bit of honey, and enjoy. Use chopped ginger in stir-fry and curry dishes, and suck on ginger candy to manage mild nausea.
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.
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