December 2011/Prepared Foods -- Functionally beneficial? Check! Trendy and marketable? Check! Easy to manufacture, ship and store? Check! Economically sound formulation? Check! Right…now, has anything been forgotten?
One of the top reasons functional food and beverage formulations fail should really be a “no-brainer”--it has to taste good. When examining the market of new food and drink products that hit the market under some type of “good-for-you” banner, the value of functional foods is proven: The functional food and beverage market is at almost $30 billion, according to Euromonitor International (www.euromonitor.com), Chicago. Yet, of the 5,000+ functional products launched since 2006, the 5-year mark for specific products can become a game of “Where are they now?”
“Products that may be very healthy will still deter consumers, if they do not taste good,” stress Euromonitor experts, in a recent report on the functional food market. Getting a product to stand out among the thousands of others competing for precious shelf space is difficult enough. Adding functionality to the mix raises the stakes considerably, because many functional ingredients present taste and texture challenges. Here are some up-trending ingredients that can help make functional flavor success happen.
 

Hot Peppers
One of the biggest flavor trends has the good fortune of bringing an abundance of health into the picture. Chili peppers are known for medicinally important capsaicinoids. And, the axiom is usually “the hotter the better.” One newly popular pepper, the bhut jolokia--a.k.a., the “ghost chili”--is one of the hottest peppers in the world. In 2010, researchers Yi Liu, Ph.D., and Muralee Nair, Ph.D., at Michigan State University in East Lansing, quantified the functional components  of capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin in ghost chilies and compared the content to the more common jalapeño and Scotch bonnet hot peppers. The concentration of these anti-inflammatory and cancer-protective chemicals in bhut jolokia was “about 338 and 18 times greater than in Scotch bonnet and jalapeño, respectively.” The scientists also found higher activity of lipid peroxidation and cyclooxygenase (COX-1 and -2) enzymes in inhibitory concentrations. Of course, formulators do not have to go with the trendiest peppers. All hot chili peppers are excellent, inexpensive and easy ways of bringing in big flavor with big health benefits.
 

Cinnamon
In a time when consumers often cannot pronounce additives in food, it is refreshing to emphasize that certain classic flavors also improve the health profile, and functional ingredients can be something everyone can recognize. Cinnamon, the dry bark of the plant genus Cinnamomum, is one of the oldest and most popular spices used. It also has been an important ingredient in traditional Chinese and Indian medicines for millennia. Cinnamon is the richest source of procyanidin compounds among the 98 common foods analyzed by the USDA. Two other highly desired flavors on this list also happen to be highly trendy, functional stars—dark berries and chocolate.
Procyanidins possess a particularly high oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC), the measure of potential protection from the damaging effects of free radicals. Such damage can trigger the aberrant cell growth that leads to tumor development and certain forms of cancer. But, cinnamon also attracted attention as a possible mitigator of diabetes. In a September 2011 article in the Journal of Medicinal Food, Davis and Yokoymaya reported the results of a meta-analysis on the effect of cinnamon on fasting blood glucose levels in subjects with type 2 diabetes and prediabetes (so-called “insulin resistance”)—conditions also intimately related to the now global pandemic of obesity. This meta-analysis looked at eight randomized, placebo-controlled clinical studies. Results indicated both cinnamon and cinnamon extract improved blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance.
Horchata is a traditional beverage--a milk substitute made from grain and spices. In Mexico, horchata is rice and cinnamon, sometimes with vanilla. Its success shows that, while cinnamon is typically associated with baked formulations, consumer acceptance runs high wherever the flavor is employed.
 

Ginger
Ginger is a classic example of an aromatic herb (botanically a rhizome) with therapeutic significance. According to a 2011 article published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, “Ginger and its Health Claims: Molecular Aspects,” the pungent fractions of ginger—gingerols, shogaols, paradols and volatile constituents, such as sesquiterpenes and monoterpenes—provide this ingredient powerhouse with antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory potential.
Ginger ale has a long history of use as a home remedy for indigestion, motion sickness, morning sickness, coughs, sore throats and digestive disturbances. Combining the functional tradition with flavor has brought success to companies, like Reed’s Inc.(www.reedsgingerbrew.com), Los Angeles. The beverage maker uses fresh ginger in all its formulations, for both the strong-yet-attractive flavor profile and genuine health benefits.
According to founder Christopher Reed, the company approaches its use of ginger in beverages with the idea of keeping flavor paramount, yet preserving the beneficial properties of the ingredient. “The process our beverages go through can only be likened to small-batch, micro-brewed beers,” he explains. “It’s much longer and more tedious compared to [traditional] soda manufacturing, but it’s worth it—when you take the first sip, and your ginger beer tastes like real ginger.” 
 

Tart Cherries
Finding new ways to incorporate fruit into people’s diets is not only essential, it has become a major part of the movement toward creating healthier products. “This powerful Superfruit is available year-round in dried, frozen and juice forms,” says Jeff Manning, chief marketing officer of the Cherry Marketing Institute (www.cherryresearch.com), Lansing, Mich. “They’re versatile enough to include in any dish, from a yogurt parfait to trail mix to a post-exercise smoothie.”
Tart cherries are packed with powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins that give the Superfruit its bright red color and are the source of their anti-inflammatory properties. Research also shows a daily dose of tart cherries might help to combat risk factors associated with arthritis and heart disease, as well as aid in muscle recovery after strenuous exercise. 
“One of the most underrated of the so-called Superfruits, tart cherries provide a unique flavor profile along with powerful antioxidant protection,” continues Manning. “If tart cherries were grown in a tropical rain forest, instead of northern Michigan, where they are most commonly known as cherry-pie cherries, they would be a highly coveted culinary delight carrying all the mystique of açai and goji berries.” But, despite the quiet “hypeless” image, tart cherries’ protective nature is well documented. In a 2010 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, tart cherries were found to aid runners in prevention of muscle pain resulting from severe training. Tart cherries contain flavonoids and anthocyanins that may protect against oxidation and inflammation.
 

Savory
Savory flavors saw a big opening up in the 1990s, with much attention paid to the “fifth” flavor note of umami (which means “meatiness”). This was expanded even further in the 2010s, with the introduction of the related sensory concept of kumami, which is a Japanese term denoting “heartiness” and lingering flavor. It has been described as the combining of flavor and mouthfeel. The result is similar to what one gets from aged cheeses or slow-cooked stews and sauces and often comes into foods through yeast or protein extracts. While similar to umami, kumami comes via fermented ingredient systems derived from proteins broken down into amino acids, and di- and tri-peptides.
Flavorants derived from soy, fish, fermented/well-aged dairy or cheeses, tomatoes and broths are examples and are excellent for enhancing like formulations (say, a tomato-based sauce) with kumami. Glutathiones (glutamic acid with cysteine and glycine) can be a shortcut to this flavor note, as well. An anti-oxidative compound found naturally in plants and animals, glutathione (GSH) has a long history of use in flavor bases.
Lingering richness of flavor also comes from combining salty/savory with a hint of sweet. American palates were opened up to this combo with the explosion of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine beginning in the 1980s. Uses of peanuts and coconut in savory formulations are perfect examples. The appeal of these cuisines grew out of their presenting American palates with familiarity, exoticism and economy, at a time when the average U.S. consumer was open to breaking free of flavor tradition. Just think of what goes into the traditional Thai noodle dish, pad thai. In addition to the hearty kumami notes from a well-hidden drop of fermented fish sauce, other savory notes are enhanced by accompanying crushed sweetened peanuts and fruity lime and tamarind. Foreign allure meets fruit and peanuts, creating a new comfort food: the perfect flavor storm. pf