What is meant by ‘natural functional foods’?

Very often we hear about functional foods. But what is meant by functional food?

Functional foods are foods that, in addition to their basic nutritional characteristics, demonstrate properties which are beneficial and protective for the body and therefore should be included – judiciously – in the daily diet.

In 1999 in the British Journal of Nutrition a number of researchers observed that:

“A food can be regarded as ‘functional’ if it is satisfactorily demonstrated to affect beneficially one or more target functions in the body, beyond adequate nutritional effects, in a way that is relevant to either an improved state of health and well-being and/or reduction of risk of disease. The beneficial effects could consist both in maintaining and promoting a state of well-being or health and/or reducing the risk of a pathological process or disease.”

Compared to traditional foods, this type of food contains essential components capable of having totally positive effects.

However, they should be distinguished from (and not confused with) supplementary and/or fortified foods or those defined as dietary which are not intended for healthy individuals but for people with particular diseases with a specific medical treatments .

In 1991, furthermore, the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare established criteria for identifying and approving a specific food category called FOSHU (Food for Specified Health Uses) also regulating nutrition labelling. 

In Japan traditional functional foods are considered as a separate category of foods, while in Europe, when it comes to functional food, it means adding functionality to an already existing traditional product as there is no specific legislation on this category of food or its labelling.

Two categories of functional foods have been identified:

  • Type A: foods that improve a specific physiological function beyond their specific role in body growth and development and have no role in the treatment of diseases or pathological states;
  • Type B: foods that reduce the risk of disease.

Among the various functional foods, we should highlight nuts, such as walnuts. They are rich in unsaturated fatty acids and thus contribute to keep blood cholesterol level normal. In fact, 100g of walnuts contains about 60g of unsaturated fatty acids.

According to LARN, the recommended daily quantity of nuts is 30g.

The combination of walnuts and yoghurt, in this case, could turn out to be an excellent alternative for a tasty breakfast as part of a varied diet because it combines probiotics (live microorganisms with a beneficial impact on the body because of its beneficial action on the intestinal tract) with unsaturated fatty acids, which are essential nutrients for proper nutrition.

Dott.ssa Nicolí Mariagrazia – Nutritionist


  • Diplock A.T. et al: Scientific concepts of functional foods in Europe: Consensus Document, British Journal of Nutrition 1999
  • Nutsforlife edizioni, Buccella Francesca
  • Alimento funzionale su Enciclopedia Britannica
  • Sinu.it


The importance of snacks in daily nutrition, an Italian review

A team of Italian experts, coordinated by the Nutrition Foundation of Italy, recently published, in the prestigious Journal of Food Science and Nutrition, a review of the “Snacking in nutrition and health”, gained through the analysis of scientific literature published around the world.

It may seem an oxymoron since in Italy snacking is regarded as the bad habit of uncontrolled eating at random in between meals without hunger, and so, from this point of view, it is difficult to associate it with a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet.

The English term “snackingis used to indicate mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. These are very different from eating randomly between meals as they have a specific purpose within the dietary routine being taken at precise times during the day and must meet specific nutritional requirements.

There is a multitude of scientific evidence to support the fact that splitting the daily distribution of energy and the supply of nutrients into 4-5 occasions, instead of concentrating them in just 3 meals main factors, have a positive impact on the overall quality of the diet and metabolism:

  • Consuming a snack in mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon avoids digestive and metabolic overload.

  • It improves the control of calorie intake in main meals by contributing to body weight control, which is why these two meals generally take the name of “starvation break”. Having a small snack between meals helps in coming to main meals less hungry and, consequently, encourages greater thoughtfulness in the choice of the quality and quantity of the food at those main meals.

  • Splitting nutrients into several occasions helps to reduce the overall glycemic load of meals and makes it possible to maintain a constant concentration of circulating glucose, avoiding the occurrence of peaks and troughs glycaemic peaks and troughs and keeping insulin levels low.

  • For those who perform intense physical activity, starvation breaks help restore glycogen reserves and keep muscle tissues intact.

  • Lipolysis (i.e. consumption of triglycerides) becomes more active.

Obviously, snacks should not substitute for proper general nutrition and should not add additional calories to the daily intake. Snacks should be part of the balanced daily diet: basically, the quality and quantity of food eaten during breakfast, lunch and dinner should guide the choice of snack that best suits your habits and needs.

In general, the mid-morning snack should account for about 5-8% of the daily calorie intake while the mid-afternoon snack, as the time between lunch and dinner is generally longer than between breakfast and lunch, should be a little more complex and account for about 7- 10% of the total daily calories.

Snacks take on a different role during different stages of life:

  • In childhood, fitting in two snacks during the day serves to improve the qualitative index of nutrition and teaches children from the earliest age to acquire correct eating habits.

  • In adulthood, in contrast, snacks help regulate hunger and consequently promote balanced hormonal secretion as well as the control of blood sugar, body weight and lipid profile.

  • For the elderly, snacks help to round out the diet. Malnutrition in older people is quite common. It is mainly attributable to dietary choices that with increasing age become more limited and, at the same time, complex because they are influenced by both biological and environmental, and also social and psychological factors.

But which characteristics should a starvation break have in order to make a positive impact on nutrition?

Obviously, not all snacks are suitable for a healthy diet. Most packaged snacks on the market, for example, are rich in additives, sugars, salt and saturated or hydrogenated fats for the sole purpose of having a more appetising taste and texture. While it is true that snacks can also fill the role of “comfort food” (that is, a food that satisfies both from the point of view of taste and psyche), it is also true that the daily balance of nutrients and energy must be respected. This means that snacks must be studied and calibrated taking into account individual age, sex, lifestyle and level of physical activity.

Below are some foods that could become part of a balanced snack which provides a sensation of satiation and enjoyment:

  • Nuts and dehydrated fruits, for example, dehydrated prunes, which help maintain the state of satiety and have a low glycemic index;

  • Dairy products, such as natural yoghurt or low-fat cheese, or otherwise a protein food;

  • Fruits and vegetables, source of vitamins, minerals and fibre;

  • Bakery products are free of saturated or hydrogenated fats (preferably cereal products with a 50% wholegrain content).

Water is the best drink to accompany meals since it maintains hydration throughout the day, which is essential for the entire body to function correctly.

To sum up, it is internationally recognized that dividing up daily calories and nutrients into four to five occasions, rather than concentrating everything in the three main meals, is beneficial from the metabolic point of view. To avoid overeating, it is essential to always stick to a timetable with snacks mid-morning and mid-afternoon, to check the energy content and composition of the foods you choose to eat and to adapt them to your needs.

Sources and insights:

Franca Marangoni, Daniela Martini, Silvia Scaglioni, Michele Sculati, Lorenzo Maria Donini, Francesco Leonardi, Carlo Agostoni, Gianluca Castelnuovo, Nicola Ferrara, Andrea Ghiselli, Michelangelo Giampietro, Claudio Maffeis, Marisa Porrini, Bianca Barbi & Andrea Poli (2019) Snacking in nutrition and health, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, DOI: 10.1080/09637486.2019.1595543


The importance of preferring proper nutrition before turning to pharmaceuticals

Eating well and following a proper diet are key points in improving lifestyle in order to live each and every day fully-charged and brimming with energy.

Eating a healthy informed diet helps our body function properly by avoiding any deficiencies in macronutrients and vital micronutrients.

Let food be your medicine and your medicine be food”, Hippocrates’ famous saying, perfectly encapsulates what it means to choose a balanced diet.

We often underestimate how much food can affect our body and the onset of diseases or nutritional disorders.

We are paying ever greater attention to the quantitative aspect of food and calories rather than to the quality and the proper combination of foods.

The properties of nutrients are so diverse as to prompt research to find out which substances are capable of having pharmaceutical properties, so-called nutraceuticals. A poor diet and constant consumption of junk and low-nutrient foods can lead over time to disorders such as diabetes, hypercholesterolaemia, hypertension and consequently the use of medicines.

No single diet is right for everyone, but some general guidelines can help in food and nutrition choices.

It is important to eat seasonal vegetables and fruits which are fresh and possibly locally produced, as well as whole grains, vegetable oils, legumes, oilseeds and nuts.

In particular, a US study regarding the introduction of this last-mentioned food, i.e. nuts, was conducted and published online by the New England Journal of Medicine following the conclusion of two long observation studies: The Nurse Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which showed that a handful (about 30 g) of nuts a day is all that is needed to to get better.

What was evident to the researchers is that there was no one type of nuts that showed more advantages than another: the protective effect was not determinable and both walnuts and almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, pecan nuts, pistachios, peanuts and pine nuts all showed that they have more or less the same beneficial properties.

Increased consumption of nuts provides the benefits of lower risk of heart disease, as well as type 2 diabetes mellitus, oxidative stress, inflammation, colon cancer, gall stones and diverticulosis.

But this is not over, the report published in the New England Journal of Medicine emphasizes another piece of good news: those who regularly consumed nuts turned out to have a healthier body weight compared to those who didn’t eat any.

The fats contained in nuts are unsaturated, so they do not harm health, are excellent for the reduction of bad cholesterol (LDL), and contain Omega 3.

100g of walnuts, for example, contain 9.2g of Omega 3, which is excellent for maintaining normal heart and brain function, normal triglyceride levels, normal visual capacity and blood pressure.

The choice of these nutrients, therefore, turns out to be a winning choice. It can also be an excellent energizing nutritious snack to offer to people of all ages, including children, as an alternative to junk food, and as a way of putting people on the right path from early years to making the right nutrition choices in later life.


Dott.ssa Mariagrazia Nicolí – Nutritionist


  • Estruch R, Ros E, Salas-Salvadó J et al. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a mediterranean diet. New Engl J med 2013
  • Nutsforlife edizioni, Buccella Francesca
  • Repubblica.it

Mediterranean diet UNESCO heritage site

When talking about a “proper diet”, we mean a diet that ensures the right intake of all macronutrients and micronutrients essential for development, growth and maintenance of a person’s state of health.

In this context, the Mediterranean Diet – or what should be more accurately defined as the “Mediterranean food model” and was inspired by the food models followed by countries bordering the Mediterranean – is undoubtedly the closest to an optimal diet.

The first scientific evidence of the validity of the principles of the Mediterranean Diet dates back to the 1950s with the “Seven Countries Study” promoted by Ancel Keys (1904 — 2004; biologist, physiologist and epidemiologist, and considered to be the first nutritionist biologist in history and founding father of food science). He involved seven nations from four regions of the earth (United States, Italy, Finland, Greece, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands and Japan) and studied the relationship between lifestyle, diet, heart disease and stroke. The results showed that the farther away from the diet typical of the Mediterranean countries, the higher the incidence of cardiovascular diseases.

In 2010 UNESCO recognized the Mediterranean Diet as an “intangible heritage of humanity” acknowledging its paternity to Italy, Greece, Morocco, Cyprus, Croatia and Portugal.

The Mediterranean Diet represents “a set of skills, knowledge, practices and traditions ranging from landscape to table, including crops, harvesting, fishing, conservation, transformation, the preparation and, in particular, the consumption of food”.

Its hallmarks are cereals – especially whole grains – fresh fruits, nuts, vegetables, olive oil and spices accompanied by a modest consumption of animal derivatives such as dairy products, meat, and fish.

Even wine – especially red wine rich in polyphenols and when consumed in moderation – is part of the Mediterranean diet alongside ordinary and herbal teas and infusions that are part of the different traditions of each country.

The beneficial effect on the prevention of chronic degenerative diseases associated with this diet, in particular on conditions affecting the cardiovascular system, is attributable to the wealth of substances such as unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6), dietary fibre and antioxidant compounds typical of plant-based foods, and calorie balancing as one of the ranges of nutritional principles.

“Calorie balancing” means the optimal distribution of calories consumed daily among different nutrients: in an optimal diet protein should account for 10-15% of calories introduced daily, carbohydrates 55-60%, and fats 25-30%.

The CREA (Italian Council for Research in Agriculture and the Analysis of the Agricultural Economy) has issued a set of Practical Guidelines, inspired by the principles of the Mediterranean Diet, which states that in order to follow a healthy diet regime, people should:

  • Consume daily at least five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables and about 30g of oily nuts, as indicated by the LARN (Portion Standard);
  • Reduce consumption of saturated fats, which include not only butter and animal fats but also palm oil. It is vital to substitute saturated fats in the diet with unsaturated fats, such as olive oil or seed oils, preferably used raw, which can help normalise the blood cholesterol levels and thereby contribute to the prevention of pathologies affecting the cardiovascular system;
  • Try to introduce most of the daily calories (about 50-60%) through the consumption of complex carbohydrates including cereals (spelt, barley, rye, and so on), pasta, bread and rice, preferably wholemeal. Wholegrain cereals are an excellent source of fibre compared to those produced using refined flour.
  • Promote the consumption of vegetable proteins, such as legumes by creating combinations that allow the intake of all essential amino acids. Consumption of animal proteins should be limited.
  • When consuming products of animal origin it would be better to choose fish and white meat and limit consumption of red meat, sausages and dairy products (especially fatty ones). Consumption of the latter should be reduced to a maximum of 2 times a week.
  • Reduce consumption of sugar and simple sugars added products (packaged snacks, confectionery, sweets, packaged biscuits, and so on).
  • Reduce the consumption of salt, following the measures provided by the Italian Ministry of Health.
  • Drink plenty of water (one litre and a half per day) and limit the intake of canned soft drinks and, above all, alcoholic beverages.
  • Vary a lot of your food choices every day.

In 1992, the Food Pyramid was designed to convey the principles of the Mediterranean Diet in a way that was easy to understand and intuitive.  In more recent times (2005) the pyramid has undergone a substantial revision due both to changes in lifestyle and habits of the population and to new scientific discoveries in the food sector:

  • Refined cereals (pasta, white bread, potatoes) have been moved from the base to the top of the pyramid, among the foods to be consumed in moderation.  In fact, attention has shifted from the level of complexity of carbohydrates to how fast or how slowly they increase blood glucose. Wholegrain cereals have a lower glycemic impact than refined ones and are preferable.
  • Lipids have also undergone a change. While only occasionally eaten animal fats have stayed at the apex, vegetable fats (such as olive oil) have moved to the base as an everyday staple.

Among the pillars of the Mediterranean diet, which would ideally also be at the base of the food pyramid, there are also aspects that go beyond proper nutrition itself to complete the picture of the perfect nutritional diet.

  • The pleasure and conviviality of meals, rediscovering the pleasure of cooking and, whenever possible, sharing meals: all of these contribute to people’s well-being.
  • Seasonality of products: choosing the most suitable and nutritious products according to season.
  • Keeping your weight under control,
  • Always remember to accompany a healthy diet with daily physical exercise. There is no need to overdo it. Just half an hour of moderate aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming breast or backstroke, or riding a bike is all that is required.

And we should always remember that a healthy lifestyle in itself will nourish our well-being and longevity.

Sources and insights:

G. Liguri; Nutrizione e dietologia – Aspetti clinici dell’alimentazione; Zanichelli





Change of season: aids and remedies

The change of season means everything changes: daylight hours, weather, mood and even diet.

All these changes are often stressful since they lead to a change in the day/night rhythms (circadian rhythms). Light and darkness can activate neurotransmitters capable of influencing body and mind. In particular, in winter the days are shorter and our body produces a greater amount of melatonin, a sleep hormone. In spring by contrast, with the increase in light, more serotonin, or ‘happiness hormone’, is produced.

With the arrival of spring, there is often an increase in fatigue, apathy, difficulty in concentration, mood swings and digestive problems (the so-called spring sickness). According to a survey carried out by the observatory Doxa-Aidepi, 35 million people aged 18 to 70 are affected, both physically and psychologically, by the change of season. 64% of Italians notice a higher sensation of fatigue, while 52% experience moderate fatigue.

Sleep disorders are also pervasive. So much so that 38% of respondents have problems with insomnia. Younger people (under 24) tend to suffer more from irritability (40%) and bad mood (37%) than the rest of the Italian population. And what about anxiety – a feeling that affects women in the age group between 25 and 34 years (29%)?

This is why it is essential to adjust one’s nutrition properly to fit the season and give preference to the foods appropriate for each. One of the most fundamental meals, if not the most important, for providing the right energy levels to face the day and changes of season with more gusto and brio is undoubtedly breakfast. It should make up at least 20-25% of the total daily calorie intake.

Some functional foods for a proper breakfast are oilseeds such as chia seeds, sunflower seeds and hemp seeds.

These are a good source of fibre, minerals, essential fatty acids, enzymes, antioxidants and proteins. In particular, they are rich in minerals such as iron and manganese that contribute to providing the right morning recharge required. For example, 100g of hemp seeds contains 7.2mg of manganese, an excellent mineral for maintaining healthy metabolic function, and 11mg of iron, a microelement that aids the reduction of symptoms of excessive metabolic strain, such as tiredness and fatigue, while at the same time assisting cognitive function.

These seeds are of significant nutritional value and can be added to breakfast recipes (in yoghurt, on warm bread, or in cereals) without changing the taste and yet enhancing the nutritional profile of the start of the day.

To round this all off, for a great breakfast, why not try some ginger as well – it’s a real cure-all for the whole body.

In this respect, 100g of ginger powder contains 25mg of iron and 28mg of manganese as well as being an excellent carminative food frequently used for dyspepsia and colic.

And then what could be better for the start of summer than a nice cup of fresh yoghurt with a handful of oilseeds, ginger powder and green tea to start the day fully recharged and with bags of energy?

Breakfast is essential and deserves to stand out for its choice of the right functional foods.


Dott.ssa Nicolí Mariagrazia – Nutritionist


  1. Vohora, S.B. and Dandiya, P.C., 1992. Herbal analgesic drugs. Fitoterapia
  2. Nutsforlife edizioni, Buccella Francesca