Functional Foods: An Ayurvedic Perspective

Functional Foods: An Ayurvedic Perspective

Over the last few years, many of us have learned the true value of our health. Self-awareness of our own physical and mental well-being has become a necessity rather than a lifestyle preference. 

Today, the wellness industry is a 1.5 trillion-dollar market worldwide, with a steady growth of 5–10 percent each year.1 With so much opportunity out there, new terms like “functional foods” and “superfoods” have become increasingly popular labels in many health products. But what do these terms really mean?   

What Are Functional Foods?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a superfood is defined as “a food (such as salmon, broccoli, or blueberries) that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person's health.”2

Functional foods, also known as nutraceuticals, provide ingredients that offer health benefits beyond their nutritional value.

These ingredients include things such as dietary fibers, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and probiotics beyond the essential nutrients.3

Despite both terms having no standard criteria or legal definitions, most superfoods and functional foods are plant-based, which promotes health “by increasing your immune function and decreasing your chance of disease progression.”4

In Ayurveda, the notion that food should nourish and support our bodies has been mentioned in the classical texts for thousands of years. 

Written in one of the greatest texts, Astāñga Hrdayam, the traya upasthambhāh considers āhara (food), śayana (sleep), and bramacharya (celibacy or management of sexual energy) as the three pillars of life that one should follow to attain a happy and healthy life.5,6

Food is also of utmost importance in all the Brihat Trayi (the great triad of Ayurvedic texts), having entire chapters dedicated to the Ayurvedic approach to diet, different food groups, and their effects on our physiology and mental health. There are even mentions of the correlation of diet, disease formation, and specific health conditions.

With this concept in mind, shouldn't all food that we consume be functional, providing support and nourishment to our body-mind?

Ayurveda has always viewed food as an essential part of nourishing our health and spiritual growth. 

It promotes a sattvic diet of seasonal foods—which are clean, provide energy, and come from a source that does not harm other living beings.

Cooking with herbs and spices, along with fresh vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and good fats, was mentioned in the scriptures as a way to achieve longevity and vital well-being. 

5 Functional Foods and Herbs Used in Ayurveda

Let's explore some of the most popular functional ingredients used in Ayurvedic cooking and how to incorporate them into our daily lives.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Also known as ārdraka in Sanskrit and referred to as the “universal medicine” in Ayurveda, fresh ginger root offers a pungent, sweet taste. It can support healthy lung function, calm hiccups, and promote comfortable menstruation. 

It supports healthy digestion of nutrients, helps to remove ama (toxins), and increases circulation.7 Ginger also contains proteolytic enzymes which can help with comfortable joint movement and supporting a healthy inflammatory response.8

Fresh ginger is calming and soothing for excess vata dosha. Dry ginger powder is energetically hotter, making it a great choice for balancing kapha. 

Serving Ideas:

  • Make your own ginger tea with warm water and fresh ginger root and turmeric (optional)—or brew a cup of Detox Digest Tea.

  • Add it to baked goods, curry, vegetables, soup, and stir-fry.

  • Use with cinnamon and lemongrass to support digestion and a healthy immune system.

  • Use it with pippali to support the health of the lungs and respiratory tract.

  • Use it with turmeric and rose to promote comfortable menstruation.9 

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Antioxidant-rich turmeric, a common spice that's widely used in India and Asia, is among the most supportive herbs for supporting a healthy inflammatory response.10 Also known as haridrā in Sanskrit, it provides pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes. 

In addition to enkindling the digestive fire and removing ama, turmeric supports liver and heart health, blood purification, healthy blood sugar levels, mental clarity, healthy skin and complexion, bone health, healthy menstruation, breast health, and breastmilk production. It can also be used to comfort and nourish the throat.11

Serving Ideas:

  • Drizzle Turmeric Ghee on vegetables, stews, and curries.

  • Add fresh or powdered turmeric to vegetables, rice, beans, lentils, potatoes, and curry. It combines well with many other spices, so feel free to get creative.

  • Drink in warm water, almond milk, or as part of a delicious Turmeric Milk latte. Add Turmeric Honey for a touch of sweetness.

  • Use with guggulumusta, and punarnava to support balance of the lower abdomen and menstruation.

  • Use with ginger, licorice, and cloves to soothe the throat.

  • Mix with warm salt water and gargle to support a comfortable throat.

  • Apply topically to promote healthy skin and bring comfort to the joints. Use with care since turmeric can stain fabric and skin. 


Ghee, or clarified butter, is sometimes referred to as the “food of the Gods” and can be considered an “ancient superfood” in Ayurveda.12 It is commonly used in Indian cooking for its buttery taste, as well as traditional Ayurvedic treatments for its numerous beneficial  properties. 

Ghee is traditionally made with cultured butter that undergoes a slow cooking process called clarification. 

This process removes some of the most difficult to digest components such as lactose, casein, whey, proteins, and traces of minerals, making this “liquid gold” suitable for people who have lactose sensitivity.13

Ghee's heavy, dense, oily, and soft qualities help to kindle agni (the digestive fire), lubricate the body, nourish the nervous system, aid the eyes, dissolve ama in the tissues, and much more. 

Serving Ideas:

  • Use ghee instead of oil to sauté vegetables and stir-fry. 

  • Add a drizzle of ghee to your toast or popcorn in place of butter.

  • Mix Chai Spiced Ghee into your oatmeal or porridge. 

  • Enjoy Turmeric Ghee with your stews, soups, and kitchari.

  • Consider using ghee as a make-up remover or a skin moisturizer. 

Coconut Milk

The milk and meat of coconut is widely used in Ayurveda. Its unctuous (snigdha), luxurious qualities and sweet taste nourishes the body and the soul. It is considered to feed the liver due to its high content of moisture, fat, and cooling properties, making it excellent for balancing pitta dosha. 

Coconut milk is also very beneficial to all vata-related neuro-muscular disorders14 and nourishing to rasa, mamsa, and majja dhatu.  Coconut milk is an excellent tonic and it is commonly used as rasayana (rejuvenative) for vata and pitta.

Additionally, coconut is used in many Vedic rituals as a symbol of selflessness—the breaking of coconut representing shattering the human ego.15

Serving ideas: 

  • For a tonifying energy booster, mix with 1 teaspoon of jaggary, 1 gram of cardamom powder, and a strand of saffron.16

  • Drink coconut water to balance all doshas.17

  • Use coconut milk for cooking stews and curries.

  • Sprinkle coconut meat on top of your morning oatmeal.

Mung Dal

Mung Dal, or mugda, is a staple in Indian and Asian cuisines. These beans are high in nutritional value, containing vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. They are also rich in potassium, magnesium, fiber, antioxidants, and folates. 

In Sanskrit, “mugda” means “that which brings happiness.” 

It is sweet in taste, with light and dry qualities that make it easy to digest and excellent for promoting strength. 

Ayurveda holds mung beans in high regard for aiding in rejuvenation, digestion, and strengthening after a cleanse or panchakarma. If you want to consume beans, it is important to cook them properly, soaking overnight and using a mix of spices to counteract any gas, bloating, or indigestion. 

Serving ideas: 

  • Use to make kitchari for an easy meal or short cleanse.

  • Make green mung soup to support healthy digestion.

  • Make a paste with finely powdered mung and water. Use it as a face mask and gently remove with warm water once dry.  

Understanding that our daily food choices will directly impact our health and well-being, is one of the bases for an Ayurvedic lifestyle. Start by including a few of the ingredients above and slowly add more herbs and spices into your kitchen. Your body will thank you.

About the Author

Luciana Ferraz, AP

Brazilian born, Luciana found Ayurveda in 1999 while living an unbalanced life in New York City. She left the corporate world at that time...

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1 “The Next Normal: the Future of Wellness,” McKinsey & Company. Accessed February 2023.

2 “Definition of SUPERFOOD,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. February 26, 2014.

3 “What Are Functional Foods?” Healthline. January 17, 2020.

4 “What Is a Superfood, Anyway?,” Cleveland Clinic. November 10, 2021.

5 Astāñga Hrdayam (chapter 7, sloka 52).

6 Samal, Janmejaya. “Proposing Ayurvedic Traya Upastambha as an Important Behavioral Health Care Strategy. - BiblioMed.Org, Deposit for Medical Articles. 2014.

7 Ferraz, Luciana. “8 Spices to Try This Fall and Winter,” Banyan Botanicals. October 13, 2020.

8 Gladstar, Rosemary. “Medicinal Herbs – a Beginner's Guide.” Storey Publishing, 2012.

9 Pole, Sebastian. “Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice.” Elsevier Limited, 2009.

10 Gladstar, "Medicinal Herbs."

11 Ferraz, "8 Spices."

12 “Ghee: Your Lifelong Companion to Good Health,” Art Of Living (India).Accessed February 2023.

13 "Ghee—Everything You Need to Know about Clarified Butter." Banyan Botanicals. February 3, 2023.

14 V Hebbar, MD (Ayu), J. “Coconut Milk: How To Make? Health Benefits, Remedies.” Easy Ayurveda, November 28, 2016.

15 “Cool as a Coconut—Make Your Own Coconut Milk at Home,” Banyan Botanicals. July 19, 2017.

16 V Hebbar, “Coconut Milk.”

17  “Cool as a Coconut.”