Smart Foods for Good Health

The concept of intelligent food might seem like some marketing spin. But the manipulation of food so that it has added health value and not just nutritional value may help in disease prevention.


  • Food has potential health benefits over and above just nutrition. 
  • By harnessing natural bacteriocidal and other positive effects normal food can be turned into superfoods.
  • Prevention of disease will soon involve promoting good gut flora and introducing positive bioactives to promote good health.

Harnessing the ‘clever substances in food’ offers an alternative prevention approach to health and is different to just managing illness. The idea of functional food is not about treating illness but about promoting good health. Functional foods keep people healthy; they are intelligent in that they act as signals and are not just nutrients.

The food industry contribution to health is often viewed in a negative way in terms of obesity and associated diseases and as a cause of infection.

Positive Impacts of Functional Foods

Functional foods offer the industry the opportunity to dispel these perceptions of lack of benefit. Food contains a wealth of often encrypted components that can promote human health over and above basic nutrition benefits. This is the basis for innovation in functional foods.

Functional foods can have antibacterial properties, lower blood pressures and improve immune responses. They can work the natural intestinal flora mix to produce bioactive compounds with positive health benefits. For example, milk is the food designed for the young and it can prevent disease such as osteoporosis, how whey protein affects colic in babies and it contains caseomorphin proteins with drug like effects.

Prospecting for Benefits

Bioprospecting is used to look for example in dairy or marine products for a benefit to human health. The aim is to look for individual useful constituents or microbes.

Specific foods, food fractions or fermented foods are isolated and then bioassayed for potential benefits. It also involves using transgenic mouse models and investigating the effects of different probiotics. For example, the antimicrobial peptide caseicidins in milk can be concentrated up for use in probiotics.

Looking for Antibacterials

There are natural inhibitory peptides in food-grade bacteria called bacteriocins that can kill and inhibit other bacteria and they may be an alternative to antibiotics.

Conjugated linoleic acid is a fatty acid that is a component in many foods. Specific isomers of CLA have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, immunoregulator, and anti-carcinogenic effects. Feeding cows sunflower oil boosts the CLA content of dairy products.

Focusing on the Gut

Therapeutic manipulation of the gut flora is a more complex aim but identification of the signalling components that act between the gut microflora and the host may provide the information to develop new antimicrobials and anti-inflammatory drug strategies. Specific flora changes may be beneficial to health and altering the flora constituents may be a future interventional approach.


A specific dietary source may be used to create different bioactives that may not just have global effects on the intestine, but also with effects on other organs such as the adipose tissue or even the brain.

Conor Caffrey is a science and medical writer.


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