Though the age-old saying "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" hails from the 1800s, the field of nutrition science is considerably nascent, particularly when it comes to the study of functional foods and their bioactive elements.
Nutritional studies from the early 20th century until the 1970s largely centered on combatting vitamin deficiencies. During this period, the emphasis was on nutrient-fortified, processed foods to tackle ailments such as scurvy—attributed to severe lack of vitamin C—or rickets, which occurs due to a prolonged deficiency in vitamin D. This focus on nutrient-centric eating inadvertently led people to consume certain nutrients in excess, aggravating health issues like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular diseases.
In 1980, a pivotal shift occurred when the U.S. government issued its inaugural dietary guidelines, which advised against the consumption of fats, sugars, and salt. This led to the ill-conceived idea that a diet high in carbohydrates like bread and pasta would substitute the caloric needs met previously by fats. The fallout was a surge in obesity and diabetes, a legacy that we still grapple with today.
The Japanese Approach to Healthy Eating
Contrastingly, Japan historically boasted one of the planet’s healthiest populations. But as Western dietary habits infiltrated Japanese society approaching the 21st century, the nation began facing health challenges similar to those in the U.S. In response, Japan was the first country to formally introduce the concept of functional foods in the 1980s. The term they adopted, "Food for Specialized Health Uses," denotes products backed by scientific evidence to enhance well-being.
Their efforts have yielded results. Over 1,000 Japanese foods and drinks have received approval as functional products, including hypoallergenic rice—essential given rice's staple status and the severe impact of rice allergies, although rare. Approximately half of the health claims in Japan center around the digestive benefits of bioactive prebiotic fibers.
Unlocking the Potential of Apples
Returning to our initial example of the apple, it's the fruit's natural dietary fibers that elevate it to a functional food. One such fiber, pectin, is predominantly found in the apple's pulp. Pectin works to minimize the absorption of sugar and fat in the body, thereby mitigating the risks of diabetes and heart diseases.
In summary, the concept of functional foods has evolved significantly over the years, offering a more nuanced approach to nutrition and health. This evolution reflects a broader understanding of the role foods can play in promoting well-being, beyond merely providing essential nutrients.