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Power Foods Carry Even More Than the Labels Say

--by Susan O. Henry

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You probably study nutritional labels on foods -- consumer surveys indicate that we're really paying attention to them, and increasingly, we’re shopping accordingly. But increasingly also, food scientists are discovering important nutritional elements beyond the vitamins, minerals, protein, fat and fiber listed on labels. In other words, a lot of our “best” foods are better than we thought.

Within the past half-decade, scientists have identified the presence of various “bonus elements” in an ever growing list of foods. They have even devised a category, called Functional Foods, and established a program for the scientific study of them -- the University of Illinois Functional Foods for Health Program. “Functional foods,” reports the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFICF), “usually refers to foods containing significant levels of biologically active components that impart health benefits beyond basic nutrition. These components are often referred to as phytochemicals -- meaning plant chemicals.”

Studies from around the world -- the University of Illinois; Harvard and Johns Hopkins Schools of Medicine; Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center; University of California- Berkeley School of Public Health; Pennsylvania State University; and Beijing College of Traditional Medicine, China, to name a few -- have been constantly adding to the list foods which serve up a lot more than vitamins and good taste.

  • Contain: Bifidobacteria
  • Benefit: May enhance function of gastrointestinal system

COLES (Broccoli, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage)
  • Contain: Indoles
  • Benefit: Protect against cancer

  • Contain: Phytochemicals
  • Benefit: Protect against heart attacks

  • Skin contains: Estrogen act-alike chemical
  • Benefit: May help preserve bone density; fights memory deterioration

  • Contains: Allyl
  • Benefits: May reduce risk of cancer; lowers blood pressure; lowers cholesterol levels; maintains blood flow, thus lowering risk of stroke and thrombosis.

TEA (particularly green tea)
  • Contains: Catechin
  • Benefit: May reduce risk of cancer

  • Contain: Lycopene
  • Benefits: Reduces risk of prostrate and cervical cancers

  • Contains: Beta glucan
  • Benefit: May help reduce cholesterol levels; may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease

  • Contains: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • Benefit: Helps increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol; fights against cardiovascular disease

  • Contain: Isoflavones
  • Benefits: Lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol; may lower blood pressure. Also contains Linoleic acid, a veggie version of Omega-3’s.

  • Contain: Phyto-estrogens
  • Benefit: Protection against breast cancer

There are many healthful compounds and combinations present in foods that “scientists have not identified or elucidated” yet, says Dr. Nancy Cohen of the University of Massachusetts Nutrition Education Program. And that, says Dr. Ralph Kroger of Pennsylvania State University, is a very good reason to eat “a balanced, varied diet of many choices.”

Unfortunately, these extraordinary functionalities of “functional foods” get defined as chemicals. “Mention ‘chemicals’ in food,” said former Ilwaco (Washington) High School science teacher Emit C. Boyd, “and the uninformed consumer will launch a protest. People forget that every substance known to man has a chemical formula; it’s the chemicals in foods that make the chemical plants in our bodies work.”

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