A dash of health may add value to traditional applications.

It is an art to add just the right amount of chopped kale to a pasta dish or sprinkle enough toasted chia seeds on a salad to make them delicious and functional. It requires science to increase the fiber content of a breaded chicken nugget or include omega-3 fatty acids in a pasta sauce, and it’s increasingly being done to appeal to consumers—especially baby boomers—seeking nutritionally dense convenience foods.

Taste, price and healthfulness continue to be the leading drivers of food-purchasing decisions, according to results from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s Food and Health Survey, which was published in early May. Whole grains top the list of what consumers are trying to get a certain amount or as much as possible of in their daily diet. It is followed by fiber, protein and calcium.

This is good news, as the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s report, published in February, identified several nutrients that are under consumed relative to recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. The shortfall nutrients include vitamins A, C, D and E, calcium, fiber, folate, magnesium and potassium. For adolescent and premenopausal women, iron also is considered a shortfall nutrient. Of the shortfall nutrients, calcium, vitamin D, fiber and potassium are classified as nutrients of public health concern because their under consumption has been linked in the scientific literature to adverse health outcomes.

The shortfall nutrients are those needed to prevent adverse health. There’s a myriad of other nutrients associated with improved health and well-being that consumers are not getting enough of. For example, omega-3 fatty acids are associated with brain development in children and cognitive health throughout the lifecycle. Choline has similar benefits, as well as being associated with heart and liver health. Others include the antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate, proanthocyanidins, lycopene and coenzyme Q10.

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A kale, walnut and feta cheese topping sprinkled on baked sweet potatoes offers a functional boost for a familiar food.

Form follows function

Scientists have been able to isolate and manufacture many of these nutrients into ingredients for use in functional foods. Interestingly, according to the IFIC survey, despite all the noise about genetically modified foods and “laboratory” foods, 66% of respondents agree that “the overall healthfulness of the food or beverage is more important to me than the use of food biotechnology,” which was defined as “the use of science and technologies such as genetic engineering to enhance certain attributes of foods.”

Thus, the time may be right to use functional ingredients in prepared fresh foods sold in food service, retail and convenience channels. Examples may include everything from a heat-and-eat lasagna to a yogurt parfait.

“Functional ingredients are becoming essential within the food development cycle to provide the nutritional claims consumers are looking for,” said Vicky Fligel, business development manager with Glanbia Nutritionals Ingredient Technologies, Fitchburg, Wis. “Health-conscious consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the role of nutrition in maintaining their well-being and are willing to include nutritionally enhanced ingredients in every part of their daily diets.

“Many companies now employ culinary chefs to provide a restaurant-type experience with retail products to ensure consumers are getting the best sensory enjoyment. Functional ingredients allow chef-inspired fresh foods to capture consumers’ attention with claims such as rich in protein, calcium, antioxidants, omega-3s, fiber and more, as well as with their taste and texture.”

Amanda Wagner, food technologist, Fiberstar Inc., River Falls, Wis., said, “Culinary trends are going back to basics when formulating foods. As a result, the best opportunities for functional ingredients in chef‐inspired foods are those foods where the functional ingredient innately makes sense to the consumer.”

For example, consumers understand bakery items already contain fiber, vitamins and minerals, especially if they are created from ancient grains or whole wheat flour bases. Using other functional ingredients such as flaxseeds or chia seeds, which are a source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein, or plant‐based fibers are a logical addition.

Another opportunity for functional ingredients exists with foods served through such health institutions as hospitals and convalescent homes, as many patients and residents tend to be poor eaters or suffer from a lack of nutrition.

Researchers have shown that fortifying sauces with micro- and macronutrients may offer an approach to improving energy intake for hospitalized older people, according to a study published in the May 2015 issue of the Journal of Food Science. The researchers fortified tomato, gravy and white sauces with a micronutrient premix blend containing folic acid, iron, riboflavin, zinc and vitamins C, D and B6, along with magnesium and potassium, all nutrients that the target population tends to be lacking in the diet. The researchers found that the healthy older volunteer consumers who evaluated the fortified tomato sauce preferred it to the unfortified version. There were also no significant differences in acceptance between the fortified and standard option for gravy. They did find limitations in the extent of fortification with protein, potassium and magnesium, as excessive inclusion resulted in bitterness, undesired flavors or textural issues. This was particularly an issue in the white sauce.

The researchers concluded that “the development of fortified sauces is a simple approach to improving energy intake for hospitalized older people, both through the nutrient composition of the sauce itself and due to the benefits of increasing sensorial taste and lubrication in the mouth.”