Functional Ingredients 101

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The advice to “only eat foods that you can read and pronounce” is often misguided. Cyanocobalamin may be a big, unfriendly word to consumers, but in reality, it’s simply vitamin B12. Foods are often enriched with other ingredients to boost their nutritional content and health benefit.

The same can be said of various functional ingredients. The average consumer knows about omega-3-fatty acids, but unlikely understands what inulin or phytosterol is.

Fiber, fiber, fiber

Dietary fiber is the indigestible part of plants that has great health benefits, but most Americans don’t eat enough.

Functional fiber is isolated/individual fiber that’s added to foods such as inulin, beta-glucan, pectin and guar gum. These fibers are derived from various sources including chicory root, oats, mushrooms, citrus fruits and beans. Functional fibers are added to breads, cereals, dairy products and other foods and are included in the total fiber content on the food label.

While functional fibers won’t provide the same nutritional value as foods that contain them, they do have some merit. When fiber is fermented in the gut, it produces short chain fatty acids, which impact health by improving insulin resistance, raising metabolism or preventing certain cancers.

One small study in overweight and obese adults without diabetes was done to evaluate the impact of inulin supplementation on inflammatory markers, gut bacteria and metabolic responses, including blood sugar. Subjects were given 20 gm inulin per day for 42 days. Results showed improved insulin resistance and changes in gut bacteria, though inulin supplementation did not impact markers of inflammation. 1

Inulin supplementation may also impact NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease). In one mouse study, mice fed inulin after 14 weeks VS high fat, normal diet or high fat diet with inulin or normal diet with inulin. Markers of inflammation were lower in the mice who received inulin-supplemented diets than those that hadn’t. Gut microbiota and short-chain fatty acids were also increased with inulin treatment. Mice that hadn’t received inulin had increases in liver enzymes, total cholesterol, body weight and liver weight. 2

Omega-3-fatty acids
Omega-3-fatty acids are the darling of heart disease prevention. From fatty fish to flaxseed, omega-3s have been touted to reduce risk of dementia, arthritis and other chronic diseases.

Fish oil is beneficial in preventing heart disease due to its anti-inflammatory, vasodilating, antiarrhythmic, antihypertensive function and triglyceride lowering potential.

Omega-3-fatty acids are found naturally in chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, salmon, and walnuts. Organic animal products also have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than traditionally raised products.

These heart-healthy fats may be added to eggs, milk, and infant formulas. The health impact of omega-3 supplemented eggs was evaluated in young healthy individuals. Outcomes observed included blood pressure, lipid profile and microvascular reactivity.

When comparing intake of 3 standard hen eggs versus 3 omega-3 enriched eggs for 3 weeks, subjects eating omega-3 enriched eggs showed improvements in the above parameters. This suggests that regular intake of omega-3 enriched eggs may aid in reducing the risk of heart disease. 3

Infant formula fortified with omega-3-fatty acids may also be beneficial. Breast fed infants receive arachidonic acid (AA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which influence the immune system. Infants who received formula fortified with AA and DHA showed a reduced risk of allergic disease and respiratory illness compared to infants who received standard formula. 4

Healthy margarine?
As consumers aim to reduce saturated fat intake, margarine has replaced butter on many tables across America. However, margarine got a bad rap due to its tans-fat content from partially hydrogenated status.

Margarine today is a totally different animal, so to speak. It’s reformulated without trans-fats as of 2018 and some have been fortified with phytosterol, also known as plant stanol esters. These plant-chemicals are found in apples, berries, citrus fruit, pineapple, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, nuts, seeds, beans and vegetable oils and are associated with cholesterol reduction. Phytosterols can block cholesterol absorption to aid in reducing blood cholesterol.

The advised amount of phytosterols per day is 2 grams to lower LDL-cholesterol by roughly 10% in addition to other lifestyle changes (low-fat diet and regular exercise). Randomized clinical trials to investigate a direct relationship between intake of foods enriched with phytosterols and cardiovascular risk have not been done. Phytosterol-enhanced margarine may be included as part of a heart-healthy diet to aid in the reduction of cholesterol. Although long term studies are lacking, these foods appear safe. 5

Are functional foods worth it?
The short answer is maybe. In the case of infant formula, the addition of omega-3-fatty acids may aid in immunity and brain development in infants and is likely worth the cost. Enriched eggs also have benefits in healthy children, but consuming omega-3s in other forms (salmon, walnuts, flaxseeds) would likely provide the same benefit.

As for phytosterols and functional fiber- these nutrients can be obtained easily in a plant-based diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, regular intake of nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils, whole grains including oats, brown rice and barley and healthy fats such as avocado, canola and olive oil. As always, there is power in plants.

By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD


  1. Chambers ES, Byrne CS, Morrison DJ, Murphy KG, Preston T, Tedford C, Garcia-Perez I, Fountana S, Serrano-Contreras JI, Holmes E, Reynolds CJ, Roberts JF, Boyton RJ, Altmann DM, McDonald JAK, Marchesi JR, Akbar AN, Riddell NE, Wallis GA, Frost GS. Dietary supplementation with inulin-propionate ester or inulin improves insulin sensitivity in adults with overweight and obesity with distinct effects on the gut microbiota, plasma metabolome and systemic inflammatory responses: a randomised cross-over trial. Gut. 2019 Aug;68(8):1430-1438.
  2. Beisner J, Filipe Rosa L, Kaden-Volynets V, Stolzer I, Günther C, Bischoff SC. Prebiotic Inulin and Sodium Butyrate Attenuate Obesity-Induced Intestinal Barrier Dysfunction by Induction of Antimicrobial Peptides. Front Immunol. 2021 Jun 11;12:678360.
  3. Stupin A, Rasic L, Matic A, Stupin M, Kralik Z, Kralik G, Grcevic M, Drenjancevic I. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids-enriched hen eggs consumption enhances microvascular reactivity in young healthy individuals. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2018 Oct;43(10):988-995
  4. Miles EA, Childs CE, Calder PC. Long-Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (LCPUFAs) and the Developing Immune System: A Narrative Review. Nutrients. 2021 Jan 16;13(1):247.
  5. Cabral CE, Klein MRST. Phytosterols in the Treatment of Hypercholesterolemia and Prevention of Cardiovascular Diseases. Arq Bras Cardiol. 2017;109(5):475-482. doi:10.5935/abc.20170158

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