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Functional foods in the Latin Kitchen!

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By: Suellen Pineda, RDN, CDN

A lot of attention has been given to functional foods in the last decade. The average consumer is now more interested in health and nutrition than ever before, therefore, the interest for including functional foods in the diet to improve one’s health is increasing.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as “foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence.” Some of the most popularized functional foods include berries, dark chocolate, tomatoes, grapes, yogurt, fortified orange juice, oats, nuts and seeds, egg yolks, fish, legumes, whole grains and more.

These foods contain natural occurring compounds―foods can also be fortified to enhance their nutritional profile―called phytochemicals (in the case of plants), and zoochemicals in animal derived foods.

The Latin kitchen is full of dishes and drinks that feature some of these foods. For instance, Colado ecuatoriano (Ecuadorian oatmeal and naranjilla fruit juice) is a great example of how Latinos make good use of functional foods. Another example is Champurrado or Mexican hot chocolate. And let’s not forget about the so many ways Latinos prepare beans and legumes throughout Latin America―even as desserts as in the case of ‘Habichuelas en Dulce Dominicanas’ (Dominican sweet beans).

It is important to note that although substantial evidence exist to determine the beneficial effects of functional foods, no food should be seen as ‘perfect’ or thought to have glorified qualities. Rather, one should aim to include a variety of ideally minimally or unprocessed foods―without added sugars and additives― in the diet.

In addition, some foods like chocolate or red wine will still provide a good number of calories that if eaten excessively will potentially cause weight gain and subsequent negative health consequences.

Here is a quick chart of some functional foods and their potential health benefit:

Food Phytochemical Potential Benefit Suggested Dish.
Tomatoes  Lycopene May reduce risks of certain cancers Raw in salads, in tomato based sofrito, Pico de Gallo and stews.
Egg yolks Lutein May reduce risk of cataracts Scrambled, classic flan, ponche de huevo (eggnog).
Dark chocolate Flavonols may reduce risk of heart disease Champurrado.
Beans & Legumes Probiotics/Prebiotics May reduce cholesterol levels All varieties of beans. Limit refried beans.
Garlic, onion & scallions Sulfides May reduce risk of heart disease and improve immune system Mojo Criollo and as cooking base
Fish Omega-3 fatty acids May reduce the risk of heart disease, cognitive development, risk of cancer and depression among other benefits all varieties. Grill, bake or pan sear fish INSTEAD of frying which may deteriorate the quality of the omega-3s.
Ceviche, Veracruz style fish, seafood soups, cazuela de pescado Ecuatoriana and many more.
Green tea Catechins May reduce the risk of certain cancers Yerba Mate.

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