The close relationship between diet and health has been known for years.
Food contains nutrients that are essential for maintaining life and obtaining energy.
Thanks to the latter we can carry out the different activities throughout the day.
However, overconsumption of certain nutrients promotes the development of certain pathologies.
Nutrients are not the only compounds found in food.
There are some that behave like toxic substances or have antinutrient activities.
Others can be beneficial and are classified as bioactive compounds.
What is a bioactive compound and where can we obtain it?
A bioactive component of a food is one that provides a health benefit.
An advantage beyond those considered as basic nutrition.
However, they are not nutrients.
This implies that are not essential for life.
Bioactive compounds are found in small amounts in food.
In those of animal origin, among others, omega-3 fatty acids from fish or conjugated linoleic acid from ruminant meat and dairy products are present.
Also the lutein from egg yolk or dairy peptides.
However, these components are found to a greater extent in foods of plant origin in the form of phytochemicals, chemical compounds produced by plants.
Different classes of phytochemicals
There are different types of phytochemicals.
Among them, phytosterols, which are found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds or legumes.
Too polyphenols, present in fruits, such as grapes and citrus; in vegetables, such as beets and eggplant, or in legumes such as lentils.
Another example is terpenes, which stand out in green leafy vegetables and soy products.
Finally, thiols, mostly in cruciferous vegetables like garlic and onion.
But not only phytochemicals are part of bioactive compounds.
There are other components that are also included in this group.
They are, for example, the dietary fiber, prebiotics and probiotics and vitamins and minerals.
What is special about bioactive components?
The functions attributed to bioactive compounds are very varied.
For example, the anti-cancer and cardiovascular disease prevention properties, attributed to omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, stand out.
Benefits are also important antioxidants, antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, and cholesterol-lowering of phytochemicals.
Not to mention the antimicrobial, antihypertensive, antithrombotic, immunomodulatory and mineral transport effects of dairy peptides.
Together they can be very useful in prevention of non-communicable diseasessuch as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Functional foods and their supposed health benefits
The bioactive components are part of our usual diet.
However, it was not until about 40 years ago that the government of Japan, faced with the increase in life expectancy and the rise in health costs, thought of food as a way to improve the health of citizens.
Thus arose the concept of “Functional Foods”.
That is, those that, in addition to their nutritional value, have a beneficial effect on one or more specific functions in the body.
Thanks to the increase in life expectancy and purchasing power, the food industry innovation and the interest of consumers for the diet, in the 90s began to introduce this kind of food in Europe.
The result is the emergence of a new fast-growing food market, whose beneficial effects on health have not always been backed by scientific studies.
Therefore, it was necessary to adopt a regulatory framework.
The goal was to protect consumers from false or misleading claims.
At the same time, it was intended to respond to the needs of the food industry.
In this sense, the European Union adopted Regulation No. 1924/2006 of the European Parliament and the European Council.
When it was applied, the market for functional foods changed dramatically.
Many they had to disappear, by not meeting what is specified.
Others were forced to modify or eliminate their health claims and the publicity that was made about them.
Scientific evidence is still not enough
Currently, within the framework of this Regulation, numerous investigations are constantly being carried out.
The aim is to discover the mechanism of action of these components and test their effect on health, both in animals and in humans.
There is a large scientific literature on the effects of bioactive components on different diseases.
However, it has not yet been possible to determine if its benefits are due to its consumption as part of the usual diet, as functional foods or if eating patterns influence.
It would be the case of following a vegetarian, hypoenergetic, Mediterranean diet, etc.
There is also no evidence to show whether exceeding the dose at which health benefits are obtained could cause some unwanted effect.
Therefore, although the study of bioactive components and functional foods has already a long history, it is necessary to continue researching in this regard, to elucidate the different aspects discussed.
Aurora García Tejedor is director of the Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Health at the International University of Valencia. This article originally appeared on The Conversation.
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