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Functional foods are foods that, on top of their nutritional value, have been developed through research to have a
function beneficial to health i.e. it can prevent some types of disease or certain bacteria.
Probiotics & Prebiotics
Bacteria colonise all over external surfaces of the body. One area where certain strains flourish is the large intestine
where there is a large surface area, an abundant source of nutrition, a stable pH and stasis to favour fermentation.
The bacteria help break down indigestible nutrients and assist in preventing gut infection. In our gut we contain good
bacteria and bad bacteria, most of the time they are balanced but they can become unbalanced due to factors such
as food poisoning, stress, poor diet etc. If the levels of bacteria are unbalanced then they could cause gut disease.
Probiotics and prebiotics help to increase the amount of and increase the resistance of the guts natural flora resulting
in a healthier digestive system and better prevention to illness.
Probiotics naturally contain the good bacteria so just help to top up the levels of good bacteria in the gut, the more
good bacteria you have the better you feel. Probiotics are produced by fermentation (e.g. when bacteria ferment
milk and yoghurt). Examples of probiotics are lactobacillus, bifidus and acidophilus.
Prebiotics are carbohydrates which when eaten cannot be digested by the body only the bacteria in the gut can
feed on them, providing a food for the good bacteria in our gut thus the good bacteria grows resulting in decreased
levels of bad bacteria so you feel better. Unlike probiotics, these are not produced in fermentation but occur
naturally in foods like leeks and onions. Oligosaccharides are a type of prebiotic that is naturally occurring, often in
plants such as the onion family, that contain added sugars that cannot be digested so help feed the good bacteria in
Plant Stanol and Stanol Esters
These substances work to reduce the level of cholesterol in the blood which reduces the risk of heart disease. They
work by reducing the level of LDL cholesterol by reducing the cholesterol absorption from the gut. HDL (High density
lipoprotein) takes the cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver where it is broken down whereas LDL
(Low density lipoprotein) carries the cholesterol away from the liver to cells. If the supply of cholesterol exceeds the
demand then it builds up raising blood cholesterol levels.
Plant Stanol and Stanol esters occur naturally in plants, nuts and oils such as fruit, vegetables, cereals, olive and
peanut oils but have to modified slightly to be incorporated into foods such as margarines. Benecol is a good
example of a functional food containing stanol ester which is added to the spread.
Other functional foods...
GM Chymosin - Chymosin is used in the manufacturing of firm cheese. Chymosin splits a milk protein and effects
the clotting which makes the milk curd and begins the ripening process of cheese. Traditionally it was extracted from
a calf's stomach but now it is made using GM bacteria. The chymosin made by GM bacteria contains fewer impurities
and is acceptable to vegetarians. It is used to manufacture vegetarian cheese. Cheese made using chymosin is rated
GM free even though the chymosin was made using GM bacteria.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) Monosodium glutamate is a sodium salt that enhances the flavour of a food.
It is particularly popular in Chinese food. It has said however to cause headaches and other symptoms in some people
but there has been no definite link made.
Gelling Agents Gelling agents are food additives that help to `gel' or thicken and stabilise various foods, like
jellies deserts and sweets. Carrageenan is a gelling agent extracted from the seaweed carrageen and is used as an
emulsifier in ice cream, jellies etc.
Invertase Invertase is an enzyme made from yeast called Sccharomyces cerevisiae. It is used sweet foods, such
as sweets. It converts sucrose, a sugar, into glucose and fructose which tastes sweeter therefore less sugar is
needed for the same sweetness. So money is saved and low calorie sweets can be made.