Necessitato a fare un po’ di lavoro di background per un articolo prossimo venturo su cibi funzionali con attività digestiva, pubblico qui parte del materiale raccolto, in alcuni pezzi. La versione in italiano? Speriamo in tempi brevi .
Inizio con un volo d’uccello sui termini del discorso: i cibi funzionali.
Functional foods and nutraceuticals
During the 1980s the Japanese Health Authorities identified special foods with extra-nutritional values as an important object of discussion, and in 1984 the Japanese Ministry of Education Science and Culture used the term “physiologically functional foods” or “functional foods” for the first time. In 1991, a formal category for alimentary items that had extra-nutritional activities was introduced: that of the “Foods for Specified Health Uses” (FOSHU), defined as: “foods with documented evidence of aiding specific physiological functions beyond whatever conventional nutrient exist in the food”.
Around the time when the FOSHU system was under discussion in Japan, the term “nutraceutical” was introduced in the U.S., which included “any substance that may be considered a food or a part of a food and demonstrates to have a physiological benefit, or to provide medical or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of protection against chronic disease”, and which, although “produced from foods”, is “sold in pills, powders, (potions) and other medical forms not generally associated with food “.
Functional foods have been defined in many ways, but recent definitions describe them as: “products that have physiologic benefits beyond nutritive qualities, and are offered in the form of foodstuffs, including those that have been fortified or have ingredients reduced or removed”; or as items that are: “similar in appearance to conventional foods, (…) consumed as part of a usual diet, and have demonstrated physiological benefits and / or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions.”
Since then, many other terms have been used to describe the complex and multifaceted gray area of food-and-medicine: pharmafood, phytoceutical, phytonutrient, medicinal food, designer food, etc. However, functional food and nutraceutical remain the two most commonly encountered terms, and are often used interchangeably in the generalist news media. In fact one is the subset of the other, since by definition nutraceuticals are those functional foods that are transformed and offered in a pill or otherwise concentrated form, different from normal, common foodstuff.
Traditional functional foods
Although these two term have perhaps been around for 20 years, foods which are “good for your health” (Traditional or Folk Functional Foods) have been around for much longer. Medical historians have stressed the fact that the distinction between medicines and food was blurred and at times non-existent in ancient and preliterate societies, and that it was the advent of modern medicine which artificially constructed a defined hiatus between diet and therapy, food and medicine. Quoting Albala: ”most complex societies codify their foods investing in them a significance beyond satisfying hunger. In the West, at least since the ancient Greeks, this significance has been medical.” Galen, following the Hippocratic spirit of preventive medicine of the Regimen, codified the age old belief that a good doctor should also be a good cook. Boorde and Cogan could, in the middle of the 16th century, still hotly debate in favor of this belief, the first saying that: ”A good coke is halfe a physycyon. For the chefe physycke (the counseyll of a physycyon excepte) doth come from the kytchyn”, the second referring to: ”cunning Cookes, or to the learned Physitian, who is or ought to be a perfect Cooke in many points”.
The same can be said of ancient Chinese Medicine, where the term Wei meant “taste” but carried all the potency of astronomical, political, ritual and medical theory association with the five agents (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), and the five flavors were to extend a framework of knowledge that had existed since/been constructed in early imperial times.
Examples of FF are also available in contemporary times, both in pre-industrial societies and, although vanishing, in industrialized societies. In the introduction to the collection of essays dedicated to medicinal foods, Pieroni and Price present some memories that could well be our own: the chestnut-meal polenta cooked in red wine as a cough remedy recalled by Pieroni and the chicken soup used for colds cited by Price; and since the 1970s ethnobotanical literature has made it clear that the blurring of boundaries between food and medicine is present in contemporary traditional societies, and that, as many studies have shown, non-cultivated wild gathered plants play an important role in the health benefits attributed to the Mediterranean diets.
Ethnobotanists have pointed out that it would be more appropriate to talk about a continuum linking the opposite poles of medicines and foods in folk knowledge, and Pieroni and Quave have come up with an often-cited mapping of this continuum, describing three other categories beyond those of food and medicine:
- Functional Foods: consumed as foods but acting beyond their basic nutritional function as food by providing protection or reducing the risk of chronic disease.
- Folk Functional Foods: weedy species or foods eaten because they are healthy but with a general rather than unique and specific health action. Besides their main nutritional or denjoyment purposes they have other effects on body functions.
- Food medicines/Medicinal foods are ingested in a food context but are assigned specific medicinal properties; or they are consumed in order to obtain a specific medicinal action.
Some other plants are used multifunctionally, simultaneously used as food and medicines without any relationship between the two uses.
It is, therefore, clear that, when talking about traditional functional foods, we need to go beyond the marketing hype, which often puts together (without blending them) the themes of the “natural” hence “safe” traditional food, with the scientific authority of biomedicine bestowed on the term functional.
Any research on this subject needs to be done across fields of research, combining historical, ethnobotanical and biomedical knowledge and insights, to avoid the fallacy of seeing FF as a mere container/vessel for phytochemicals, discounting the cultural construction of the objects of research. Not only would this be methodologically incorrect, it would also lead to an important mistake: namely, ascribing functional potential to a material simply due to the presence of an identified compound with known experimental activity; or, conversely, of choosing one compound as the sole element responsible for the “medicinal” dimension of a food.
 Etkin, N.L. Edible medicines: An ethnopharmacology of food. The University of Arizona Press. 2006. p. 207; Dai Y, Luo X., “Functional food in China”. Nutr Rev. 1996 Nov; 54 (11 Pt 2):S21-3.
 DeFelice, S.L. “Preface”. In S.L. DeFelice (ed.) Nutraceuticals: Developing, Claiming, and Marketing Medical Foods. Pp. V-viii. Marcel Dekker, New York
 Recommendations for Defining and Dealing with Functional Foods, Report of the Bureau of Nutritional Sciences Committee on Fuctional Foods, Health Canada, 1996
 Etkin, N.L. 2006 Op. Cit. Pp. 207-208
 Etkin, N.L. Chapter 2: “Food in the history of biomedicine”. In N.L. Etkin 2006 Op. Cit. p. 207
 Albala, Kenneth “Dietary regime in the Renaissance”, in Malloch Room Newsletter, Jan. 1994,7: 1–2.
 Grant, M Galen on food and diet, London, Routledge, 2000, p. 62.; Powell, O Galen: On the properties of foodstuffs, Cambridge University Press, 2003
 Boorde, A The first boke of the introduction of knowledge and a compendyous regyment, ed. F J Furnivall, Early English Text Society, Extra Series, 10 London, Early English Text Society, 1870, p. 277; from the edition of 1547. As quoted in Andrew Wear, Knowledge and practice in English medicine, 1500–1680, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 170
 Cogan, T The haven of health: chiefely gathered for the comfort of students, and consequently of all those that have a care of their health, amplified upon five words of Hippocrates, written Epid. 6, Labor, cibus, potio, somnus, Venus .. . Hereunto is added a preservation from the pestilence, with a short censure of the late sicknes at Oxford of Thomas Cogan, London, printed by Henrie Midleton, for William Norton, 1584, p. 98, as cited in Wear, op. cit., note 2 above, p. 170.
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