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Functional foods: providing benefits

Hovering somewhere between food and medicine, functional foods – sometimes known as nutraceuticals – are foods that provide health benefits beyond general nutrition: think probiotic yoghurts or omega 3 enriched eggs. Perhaps the most well known product is Benecol, which uses plant stanol ester to lower blood cholesterol.

Functional foods sit within the health and wellbeing foods market, estimated to be worth €158 billion and growing at 2-8 per cent annually. However there is not yet an official definition of functional food.

Rosemary Sexton from Enterprise Ireland says there is a big move towards functional food development in Ireland, particularly as the dairy sector prepares for the abolition of milk quotas and looks to develop value-added products. “We see a lot of opportunities in the functional foods area. From an Irish perspective nutrition is a big part of the market. There are lots of developments on the dairy side.”

In November, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton announced a €21 million investment in Food for Health Ireland, a research facility which aims to isolate and extract the beneficial ingredients in milk to add to foods. The centre, a collaboration between five industry partners and seven of Ireland’s education institutions has already completed five years of research into “mining” milk for active ingredients that could help in the areas of infant nutrition, appetite modulation, performance nutrition and healthy ageing.


Food for Health Ireland has identified 75 ingredients with potential to be used in functional foods, with applications including glycemic management and the prevention of age-related muscle loss. The aim for the second phase is to work towards commercialising research. “Now more than ever before, the insights from science will allow food and beverage manufacturers to create products with really strong and compelling nutritional arguments,” says Noel Corcoran, sales and marketing director at Carbery, one of the five industry partners along with Dairygold, Glanbia, the Kerry Group and the Irish Dairy Board.

Functional foods are not confined to the dairy industry. Dr Fiona Manning is programme director of NutraMara, a multi-disciplinary research consortium, looking at bioactives found with mussel and prawn shells. “At the moment it’s quite small. It’s the first time marine scientists and food scientists have come together.”