Home Health Health Functional Food Nutraceuticals vs Supplements and “Functional Foods” – What’s the difference anyways? —...

Nutraceuticals vs Supplements and “Functional Foods” – What’s the difference anyways? — Spinaca Farms


Can you tell the difference between a functional food, a dietary supplement and a nutraceutical? Most people are aware that what they eat affects their vitality and lifespan, but have no idea where the line between food and drugs really lies. As we’ve discovered, the definition of nutraceuticals vs supplements and functional foods overlap quite a bit, but each retains its own niche in the modern food industry.

Functional Foods

Walk through the supermarket and you’ll encounter a variety of foods that serve different purposes; e.g. apples for snacking or pie-filling, puffed rice cereal fortified with vitamins and minerals for breakfast, baby formula is for early childhood nutrition, gluten-free bread for those with dietary restrictions, and energy drinks for, well… energy.

The American Dietetic Association believes that all foods serve a function – e.g. to sustain life – but so-called functional foods “that include whole foods and fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis, at effective levels.” (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 109, Issue 4, April 2009, Pages 735-746)

As a working definition, a functional food is any food that’s enriched or enhanced to benefit overall nutrition. Functional foods have their heritage in the mid-20th century when biochemists responded to dietary deficiencies by isolating vitamins and minerals to boost certain foods like folate-enriched bread, iodized salt and orange juice with extra calcium; this era could be thought of as Functional Foods 1.0. Today’s functional foods market, Functional Foods 2.0, has grown enormously over the past two decades to include additives like soy protein, collagen, and spirulina in snacks, bars, drinks, mixes, pastas, cereals and powders, to name only a few.

Dietary Supplements

Though they may purport to serve the same purposes, functional foods look like food, while dietary supplements appear drug-like and can induce drug-like reactions in high enough concentrations.

In response to mounting confusion about claims made by dietary supplement producers, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which determined that vitamins, extracts, and other nutrient-based compounds would be regulated as foods rather than drugs, which are subject to extensive (and expensive) trials and may make claims as to their efficacy, whereas supplements may not.

As defined in the DSHEA, a dietary supplement is “a product (other than tobacco) that is intended to supplement the diet, which contains one or more of the following dietary ingredients—a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical, an amino acid, a dietary substance to supplement the diet by increasing the total daily intake, or a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combinations of these ingredients; is ingested in pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid form; is not represented for use as a conventional food or as the sole item of a meal or diet; and is labeled as a ‘dietary supplement.’”

So, the playing field is wide for dietary supplements, which can be an isolated vitamin (like a capsule of Vitamin E), an extract (like that of the plant ginkgo biloba), or a fatty acid (like omega-3).


Under the umbrella of “dietary supplements,” nutraceuticals are any whole food – not an isolated nutrient or vitamin – that is concentrated and repackaged in a non-food format like a capsule. A good example might be garlic capsules (such as Puritan’s Pride Odorless Garlic), spinach (like Swanson Premium Full Spectrum Spinach Leaf) or beets (like Nature’s Way Beet Root). When ingested, each of these concentrated, whole botanicals has shown promise in promoting health and preventing disease. Brands that specialize in nutraceuticals include Oregon’s Eclectic Institute, Garden of Life’s Vitamin Code Raw line, and Standard Process.

Confused yet? Here’s a summary of Nutraceuticals vs Supplements and how they fit within the Functional Foods umbrella:

  • Functional foods look like food and are modified for greater nutritional value.

  • Dietary supplements look like drugs and are made from food, isolated nutrients or food-like substances to augment health.

  • Nutraceuticals are a sector of dietary supplements made only from whole foods to augment health.


So, what does this have to do with Spinaca Farms and why do we care?

With multi-generational farming wisdom, a dedication to mitigating food waste, and plenty of organic vegetables like kale, beets, spinach, and broccoli, we are uniquely positioned to supply each of these three food industry niches and contribute to the health of consumers and the planet alike.



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