You see it on food labels at the grocery store and in nutrition and diet articles everywhere: functional food. The term is now used widely in the lexicon of the food and nutrition industry (and peripheral, associated industries), but plenty of people still aren’t quite sure what the term means or what foods fall into the “functional food” category. (Don’t worry—we were in the same boat not long ago.) So, we want to break it down—and go further, to share just how Spirulina fits into the functional food family.

What are Functional Foods?

The notion and term “functional foods” was first used in Japan in the 1980s and slowly made its way into Western dietetic vocabulary, albeit still with slightly varying definitions. Generally, it refers to foods whose value goes further than simply providing basic nutrition. As the American Dietetic Association defines it, functional foods “move beyond necessity to provide additional health benefits that may reduce disease risk and/or promote optimal health.”

In some cases, foods that fall into this category are whole foods in and of themselves, such as kale or oats. However, some functional foods are those that have been modified in order to bolster their nutritional benefits, such as orange juice with added calcium in order to support bone strength and health. In a similar fashion, sometimes “functional food” can refer to one element of food—the element that puts it over the top on the benefit spectrum. For instance, in oats and barley, it’s the soluble fiber called beta-glucan that may reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome and heart disease. In flax and fish, it’s the omega-3 fatty acids that can reduce the risk of heart disease, reduce symptoms of certain present diseases, and further improve one’s overall health in a myriad of ways.

“Superfood” v. “Functional Food”

You might read some of this and wonder, A lot of that information sounds pretty similar to what we hear about superfoods. What is the difference? And in fact, there is a lot of overlap between lists of functional foods and superfoods—expressly in the lists of whole foods that fall under both categories.

Most fundamental functional foods are whole foods, fruits, and vegetables, such as spinach, kale, tomatoes, carrots, blueberries, yogurt, almonds, salmon, etc. Most of those foods are also considered superfoods—a.k.a. foods that provide numerous benefits for our overall health and nutrition. Functional foods, however, also include nutraceuticals, vitamins, supplements, and plant and animal extracts that have the explicit benefit of reducing the risk of chronic disease.

Spirulina: A Functional Food Hero

Speaking of superfoods, we have written lots about the vast benefits of our favorite ingredient, Spirulina, that make it superfood royalty, from its top-notch nutrient profile to its status as a plant-based complete protein (with all nine amino acids our body doesn’t produce on its own!). Because of its superior composition, it provides incredibly long-lasting energy, high antioxidant levels, and a good boost to gut bacteria. Plus, it’s been found to help lower blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol as well as potentially help reduce the effects of cancer. You could maybe call it a superfood superhero. (At least, we will.)

But it’s not just a hero in the superfood category. Looking at its capacity to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, studies have found the microalgae to be a great potential agent in preventing both heart disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Coinciding with that, Spirulina has anti-obesity and anti-diabetic properties that place it even higher in the rankings of functional foods and their benefits. The specific compounds at play include long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, carotenoids, phycobilins, polysaccharides, vitamins, sterols, and, of course, antioxidants.

On a practical level, too, the food industry is very curious and excited about Spirulina’s use as a functional food and additive because of its high productivity by area and how environmentally friendly it is to farm. It’s also highly adaptable to different environments. All of which means that it could be an incredibly useful and practical way to provide more nutritional benefits to more foods simply by making and adding more of it.