Nutritional qualities and benefits of functional foods in Mexico

12/11/2020

Functional foods are very beneficial foodstuffs: they reduce the risk of some chronic or metabolic disease beyond their nutritional content. Conditions such as obesity, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, and hypertension have spread throughout the world's population. These chronic diseases are often related to diet.

With the recent publication of the Mexican standard on food and beverage labeling, it is possible to know in advance the commercial and health information of critical nutrients that represent health risk in prepackaged products.

The norm is adopted to protect the population from chronic and metabolic diseases since it is well known that good health is directly related to a healthy diet. Nowadays consumers try to acquire good raw materials as well as functional foods, this is a worldwide trend.

Excessive consumption of nutritionally poor, highly processed, and rapidly absorbed foods can lead to systemic inflammation, reduced insulin sensitivity, and a host of metabolic abnormalities, including obesity, hypertension, and glucose intolerance.

Functional foods represent an important therapeutic approach to prevent or mitigate these diet-related diseases by reducing inflammation or favorably influencing the immune system. These functional foods contain polyphenols, various antioxidant substances, or omega fatty acids among the most important, as well as microorganisms beneficial to intestinal biota.

In Mexico, there are numerous foods that come from native plants or microorganisms, which are considered functional foods. Perhaps the best known and most used are nopales (Opuntia spp.), their stems decrease glucose peaks after ingesting food, in addition to containing antioxidants.

Chia seeds (Mexican Salvia) have been consumed since pre-Hispanic times for their high content of beneficial fatty acids, proteins, and fiber. Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) is used for its leaves, inflorescences, but above all for its seeds, known as joy. These have a high protein content, as well as high levels of essential amino acids. 

The cyanobacterium Spirulina (Arthospira spp.) is another food that has been consumed since pre-Hispanic times. It was prepared in small cakes, its compounds can decrease obesity, hypertension, and hyperglycemia.

Likewise, in the Mexican diet, there are several known fermented drinks that contain good bacteria for the intestinal biota such as pozole from corn, distilled or non-distilled derivatives of agaves, or the fermented tepache from the peel of the pineapple, a South American fruit.

Without a doubt, in Mexico, cactus fruits are the best examples of functional foods since they all contain antioxidants, thanks to the betalains, exclusive pigments of succulent plants. The fruits can be pigmented in the pulp and/or in the peel. Prickly pears are the green or purple fruits of a cactus with a green pulp; pitayas come from a columnar cactus, their shells are purple or green, and the pulp is intense red; pitahayas have varied colors (Hylocereus group), the shell is red or intensely pink and the pulp is grayish or purple.

They are produced by epiphytic plants that grow on trees, used by the Mayans since pre-Hispanic times; the xonocostle or xonochtle is a sour tuna (Opuntia joconostle) used as a vegetable to accompany stews; the garambullos have a bluish-black color produced by a candelabriform cactus (Myrtillocactus spp. ); jiotillas (Escontria chiotilla) have scaly skin and their flesh is red and sweet; guamishas (Ferocactus spp. ) are easily fermented and are used to make beverages; chilitos or chilillos of intense red color are produced by several species of globose cacti (Mamillaria, Corypantha, Melocactus) with a bittersweet flavor and chichipe or chichituna is produced by columnar cacti (Polaskia chichipe and P. chende).

In particular, the pitahayas, pitayas, or dragon fruits (Hylocereus group) have great nutritional qualities of functional food, have dietary fibers that help increase beneficial microorganisms of the intestinal flora, its pulp has antioxidants, pectins, and hypoglycemic substances. 

It can be cultivated on trees or stakes and the plants grow in a wide variety of habitats from very dry to semi-arid. It would be beneficial to have a greater production of pitahayas to be consumed in a more generalized way by the Mexican population and benefit from this functional food.