“That tastes great, but what can it do for me?”
It’s a question discerning diners are asking more frequently. People want their food to do more than simply satisfy their hunger or cravings; they require more than a pretty, Instagram-worthy plate.
Interest in the relationship between diet and health has increased the demand for information about functional foods, according to the International Food Information Council. Consumers want their food to fulfill all sorts of personal needs: to energize or calm their moods, detoxify, clear up skin, boost immunity, repair muscles, or just not make them sick if they have food allergies.
“People come in and say, ‘I’m bloated; what do you have?’ or ‘I have a cold; what should I eat? or ‘I don’t sleep well; what should I buy?’” says clinical nutritionist Moshira Soliman, who took over Andy’s Pure Food in Rye in January and turned it into The Pureganic Cafe, offering hot meals and family-friendly dishes. “Sometimes I laugh and say I’m becoming more of a health store than a food store.”
Functional food is the new superfood, a term that’s been overplayed. Of course, both words describe basically the same ingredients (kale, coconut, and quinoa, we’re looking at you). But the promises are a little toned down. Obviously, all food has a function: to keep us alive. Yet, functional foods are those that provide benefits beyond basic nutrition.
Coming out with several new probiotic-fortified drinks in the past year or so, Uncle Matt’s Organic is a Clermont, Florida, company that produces orange juices, waters, and organic fruits sold nationwide, including at Mrs. Green’s in Briarcliff Manor, Mount Kisco, and Scarsdale; Whole Foods Market in White Plains; Food for Thought in Hastings-on-Hudson; Balducci’s in Scarsdale; and select DeCicco & Sons stores. Probiotics improve gut health.
“For people who don’t want to pop a lot of pills, orange juice is a very easy, understandable, enjoyable item,” says Matt McLean, founder and CEO of Uncle Matt’s Organic.
McLean’s no-pulp juice was the only alternative to his original orange juice when he started his company in 1999 (in 2002, he offered a version fortified with calcium and vitamin D). “Really, in the last year, we went outside the box and added probiotics, plus turmeric, and probiotics with coconut,” McLean says. “In the natural-food industry, both have really blown up. It packed another punch.”
Turmeric sits on the top of the heap of functional foods people are interested in, evidenced by a 56 percent increase in Google searches about turmeric between November 2015 and January 2016. At Pureganic, Soliman suggests her cold-pressed D-Flame juice for those suffering from aches and pains. It contains turmeric, ginger, and lemon. “I call turmeric a natural steroid. It’s a wonderful anti-inflammatory.”
Darleen and Lee Gross of Organic Pharmer’s locations in Rye Brook and Scarsdale are the poster-chef couple for using delicious food as medicine. Their choices are based on macrobiotics, “which is kind of the original functional-food philosophy,” Lee Gross says. “It approaches food by studying its energetic effects, based on thousands of years of learning how food has subtle effects on how you feel. It’s about the overall impact.”
Turmeric is a no-brainer.
Organic Pharmer’s Flow juice includes a hint of black pepper, along with turmeric, carrot, green apple, burdock, ginger, and a calendula flower infusion — because black pepper enhances the bioavailability of the circumin in turmeric, enabling the body to better absorb it. For a headache, Darleen Gross turns to turmeric before she does a pill like Advil because even though it’s a milder anti-inflammatory, there’s less risk of side effects like kidney damage. One of her most popular juices is the ruby-red Staminator, great for hangovers. The cold-pressed infusion juices are part of their one-day juice-cleanse programs, based on such functional themes as Muscles and Joints, Reboot, Beauty, Power Play, Liver Love, and Immunity.
For solid food, many people focus more on the functional benefits of avoiding ingredients like sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, meat, preservatives, or anything artificial. Organic Pharmer has an adzuki bean and quinoa chili without tomatoes, to avoid exacerbating arthritis. “It’s sort of like an anti-inflammatory chili,” Lee Gross says.
The desire for functional food doesn’t translate to most traditional fine-dining restaurants, but it can change a restaurateur’s focus. Many guests still don’t know Thyme Steak & Seafood in Yorktown Heights is 95 percent gluten-free, says owner and Executive Chef Thomas Costello, who transformed his seasonal American cuisine after his celiac-disease diagnosis.
“People are coming to splurge, especially on the weekends,” Costello says. “But I think people are more aware of the food they’re consuming.”
Harrison restaurateur Vance Campbell used to run a Latin eatery in New York City, with a lot of heavy, fried food, white rice, and large portions. But Campbell is a health-conscious guy who runs and goes to the gym, and he found himself eating his lunch and dinner at the health-food restaurant next door.
So now, Campbell runs Mix on Main in Dobbs Ferry, which sells nutrient-rich takeout and dine-in lunches and dinners, as well as cleansing and energizing juices. A bike shop and three personal-training studios surround his place. About 40 percent of his morning customers come in for a wheatgrass shot, which has the equivalent of a pound of vegetables in it, he says. Around noon, they want quinoa bowls with bison or salmon on top, for some midday energy.
“A lot of people come here before or after their workouts,” Campbell says. “And there are a lot of moms…who need something on the go, and they come and get the Gorilla-Espresso Smoothie because it’s got two shots of espresso, but it’s healthy, with banana, peanut butter, honey, and almond milk.”
Which brings us to the ultimate functional food: coffee.