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Are functional foods suitable for the under fives?

Are functional foods suitable for the under fives?
You’ve probably heard of probiotics, prebiotics, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids? But where do they fit into a healthy diet for your children? They are all examples of functional foods, which are foods that provide benefits beyond their basic nutritional properties and therefore may provide medical and health benefits.  Although many foods in their natural state can be seen as functional foods, e.g. fresh fruit and vegetables, breast milk, whole grains and Soya products, the concept of functional foods is rapidly being extended to commercially manufactured products.
Functional foods are a booming industry with new products being developed daily.  Some of the most popular categories to hit the shelves include:
• Foods that contain a higher concentration of a healthy component e.g. omega-3 enriched eggs, milk and bread
• Foods to which healthy components, normally not present, have been added, e.g. calcium enriched orange drink, prebiotics added to cereal, or probiotics or healthy bacteria is added to yoghurt
• Foods in which the bio-availability of healthy components have been increased e.g. calcium is added voluntarily to some Soya based drinks. Iron, thiamine and niacin must be added back to white and brown flour (but not wholemeal) as they are removed with the bran during the milling of wheat to make non wholemeal flours, many breakfast cereals are also fortified with Iron and vitamins.
Probiotic products have seen the greatest growth in the functional food market and studies indicate that their use in children results in less digestive problems e.g. colic and is well used to treat acute infectious, diarrhea and the prevention of antibiotic induced diarrhoea. However, clever marketing and packaging would suggest that they can provide much more than this, giving them almost “superfood” status.
Some functional foods do offer definite benefits, and have a valid place in a child’s diet, but functional foods are not, and never can be a substitute for a healthy diet, and they will never make a poor diet good.  
Breast milk remains the ultimate, functional food for infants, containing pre and probiotics and highly bio-available vitamins and minerals.
Omega-3 enriched eggs are regarded as a good choice of functional foods when compared to omega-3 enriched bread or milk.  The best source of omega-3 fatty acid are oily fish and can be incorporated into the diet of children e.g use oily fish like mackerel and salmon to make fish cakes and home made fish fingers.
Many probiotic supplements for adults are available.  Infacol Probiotic Drops are the first probiotic supplements in the UK which are suitable and safe for infants and children. They contain no added sugar, flavouring, colour or alcohol.
What is the difference between a pre and probiotics?
Prebiotics and probiotics work together to strengthen the natural healthy bacteria in the gut.  A prebiotic is a non-digestible food ingredient that provides food for the natural healthy bacteria in the gut, stimulating their growth.  Prebiotics are added to a range of products e.g. confectionary and cereals.  Look out for the names inulin, fructooligosaccharides and galactooligosaccharides on food labels.  Probiotics are the live bacteria that are cultivated and added to foods, especially milk and yoghurt products and dietary supplements.  These bacteria need to be robust enough to survive the journey through the digestive track, where they reach the colon and improve the balance of healthy bacteria. The most common probiotics used are lactic acid bacteria, e.g. Lactobacillus.
Are the probiotic drinks suitable for my 2-year-old son, he drinks 3 a day?
Yes and No.  Yes, probiotics in principal are a good thing and are safe to use for children. But, probiotics should be used as a functional food and not a product which should be packaged and marketed to children.  Most probiotic drinks are sweetened with sugar, which could contribute to dental caries and excess energy.
My toddler has suffered from ear infections and has required several courses of antibiotics. Is there any specific recommended functional food that would improve his health?
Antibiotics are known to cause diarrhea and cause an imbalance to healthy bacteria in the gut.  Your toddler could benefit from adding probiotic drops to milk or added to food.
Do my children need antioxidant supplements?
A healthy and varied diet provides plenty of vitamins and minerals and other antioxidants, with no need for supplementation.  We know that the under fives are not all keen on all the vegetables and fruit, so try to focus on variety over the space of a week and not just one meal or day! A children’s supplement may be helpful but the emphasis should always be on real food first.

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