Plants or their extracts have long been popular as medicinals, known for their benefits in addressing a panoply of health concerns ranging from age-related conditions and allergies to digestive health and energy to blood-sugar management and weight control. For centuries, they were commonly incorporated into foods and beverages. Food was medicine and medicine was food, to paraphrase Hippocrates.

With the Industrial Age, a division grew between the plants we eat and those we use to manage or cure diseases and health conditions. Pills and potions took over for teas and broths, at least in Western culture, and it wasn’t until comparatively recently that people looked back toward ancient ways that the medicinal value of many of the plants in our diet came to be rediscovered.

“Many of the most popular herbal dietary supplements sold in retail stores in the United States are herbs that have a long history of use as conventional foods and/or spices,” says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the nonprofit American Botanical Council. “Depending on their form (dried powders, extracts, etc.) and the level of their inclusion (i.e., concentration and amount of daily intake), when adequately qualified for their safety (e.g., GRAS determination) many of these ingredients can provide safe and beneficial functional additions to conventional foods.”

Herbs and spices, as well as cacti, roots, and rhizomes (such as ginger, galangal, and turmeric) have become valued for both their flavor and their health benefits. Bark from a number of plants is used as a medicinal. The most common of these, of course, is cinnamon bark—beyond flavoring, its phytochemical actions have been found to help control blood glucose levels.

However, while many common herbs and spices have re-established a dual role, many more have remained in the background. With thousands of such natural ingredients ready to be exploited, the opportunity for food and beverage makers to incorporate such underused botanicals in foods and beverages for their health benefits as well as their flavor is virtually without limit.

It makes sense to consider formulating functional foods and beverages using some of the botanicals that are popular in the dietary supplement (DS) arena. The informed consumer is already aware of their purported and actual health benefits, so familiarity can ease the way into the pantry for ingredients.

According to Jenny Zegler, global food and drink analyst for consumer research group Mintel, “In 2017, the food and drink industry will welcome more products that emphasize plants as key ingredients.” Mintel forecasts increased offerings of prepared foods and beverages that will “leverage fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, botanicals and other plants as a way to align with consumers’ nearly omnipresent health and wellness priorities.”

Using up-and-coming botanicals that might not be as well-known or as entrenched in the marketplace, also presents opportunity. Although some have the challenge of not having as much clinical research behind them, those that have extensive traditional folk medicine knowledge to support their rational use can be a savvy marketing choice. All botanicals, of course, depend on their relative safety being adequately established and any claims about their benefits being appropriate.

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp., Rosaceae or rose family) ranked 39th in the natural channel with just under $2.5 million in sales, but it is a popular plant with herbalists and many German health professionals who are aware of its cardiac benefits. It has long been one of the most prescribed botanical medicines in central Europe, especially Germany.

Hawthorn is used as a tonic for heart health and said to ameliorate the early stages of congestive heart failure. It is believed to help improve circulation, blood pressure, and arrhythmia; increasing cardiac work tolerance; relieving palpitations, pain, and tightness in the chest, rapid pulse, or vertigo; and reversing age-related cardiac muscle degeneration.

While there is more clinical research on hawthorn leaf and flower preparations, the number of studies is also increasing on the haws or berries which were, traditionally, the more commonly used part of the plant. A whole plant extract is sometimes recommended, and there are a number of clinical studies that support this recommendation.

Historically, hawthorn berries have been used in jams, syrups, and cordials. (Deriving from the Latin for heart, cordials are stimulating beverages which include an alcohol component and are meant to be shared among friends for their medicinal benefit.) Hawthorn leaf and flower preparations are primarily used in teas, tinctures, and capsules.

Rising Stars

A number of so-called “superfruit” ingredients that hit the scene in the past decade have finally established a strong foothold as “better for you” botanicals. Each has made the transition from ancient healer to modern health food with success based on perfect balances of flavor and function. Of these, one sterling example is the goji berry, the common name for the fruit of both Lycium (Lycium barbarum [Barbary wolfberry] and L. chinense [Chinese wolfberry], Solanaceae or nightshade family).

Goji berries have been used as both a medicine and functional food in China for more than 4,500 years. The berries are primarily consumed dried, freshly squeezed into juice concentrates, or steeped in alcohol. China is the main producer, user, and exporter of goji berries, with minor amounts also coming from North and South Korea. China’s domestic consumption is likely higher than its export figures. While goji berry ranked only 79th in 2015 in the natural channel with just under $1 million in sales, it was 26th in the conventional market with sales of more than $12.5 million.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), lycium is used to treat vision-related problems and to boost energy. Goji berries are a nutrient-dense fruit, containing monosaccharides, amino acids, polysaccharides, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron, in addition to an array of carotenoids. Zeaxanthin is the most predominant carotenoid in lycium fruit and accumulates in the macula of the eye, preventing oxidative damage and loss of visual acuity.

Studies have revealed that goji berry extracts, and certain polysaccharides found in L. barbarum, have a variety of potential therapeutic benefits including enhancing endurance and stamina, slowing the effects of aging, preventing age-related macular degeneration, increasing activity of immune cells, as well as reducing total cholesterol and hypoglycemia. Goji’s antioxidant activity has been linked to carotenoids, flavonoids, and the Lycium Barbarum Polysaccharide (LBP) fraction.

Açai (Euterpe oleracea, Arecaceae or palm family) is a palm that is widely distributed through the Amazon River basin and produces edible fruit (drupes) throughout the year. A mature açai plant can produce more than 1,000kg of fruit in 7-10 years. Over the past decade, açaí has become highly popular in the US market, placing 27th in the conventional channel with almost $12 million in sales in 2015.

Old Favorites Renewed

Another avenue is for processors to simply make more expansive use of the tried and true superfruit botanicals that are well established but have room to be positioned as powerful medicinals.

Cranberry, flax seed and oil, elderberry, and ginger, among others, are a few of the traditional and conventional foods sold in herbal supplement form that already have a firm place in the top 20 in sales in either the natural or mainstream market. All are prime ingredients for inclusion in food and beverage formulations.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon, Ericaceae or heather family) ranked second in the US mainstream herbal supplement sales in 2015 with almost $66 million in total sales and 14th in the US natural channel with more than $5.5 million in total sales. Cranberries are valued for their ability to prevent (and in some cases, treat) urinary tract infections (UTIs) by inhibiting bacterial adherence to the urinary tract—including UTIs acquired during pregnancy and lactation or following gynecological surgery, as well as those acquired  from ureteral catheter insertion, radiation-induced cystitis, or lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS).

What is not as well-known is that research indicates cranberries might be able to inhibit bacteria in the stomach (e.g., Helicobacter pylori) as well as plaque bacteria that cause periodontal disease, may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) through the increase of HDL cholesterol and lowering of LDL cholesterol, and may be helpful in controlling glycemic response in people with impaired glucose tolerance.

Ranked 5th in the natural channel in 2015 and 25th in the conventional marketplace for a combined total of $23.5 million in sales, European elder, or elderberry (Sambucus nigra, Adoxaceae or moschatel family) produces large, dangling bunches of juicy, purplish-black drupes (the so-called berry).

Long valued for its beneficial effects, new demand for elderberry is being driven, in part, by numerous in vivo and in vitro studies which continue to demonstrate the fruit’s antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immunomodulating properties. In addition to supporting elderberry’s long history of use in maintaining a healthy immune system and shortening the duration and severity of colds, flu viruses and seasonal allergies, clinical studies have demonstrated a potential cardioprotective role, laxative effect, and possible help with weight loss.

Rich in red and purple-pigmented flavonoids known as anthocyanins which are potent antioxidants, elderberries lend themselves to being prepared in a variety of ways. Elderberries can be used to make jams, syrups, juice blends, tea blends, cordials, and medicated wines.

For millennia, ginger (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae or ginger family) root (rhizome) has been used as a food, spice, and medicine. Native to southern Asia, it has been described in early Sanskrit, Chinese, and ancient Greek, Roman, and Arabic texts as a treatment for diarrhea, nausea, and stomachache.

Ginger is also used for motion sickness; to reduce the symptoms of cold and flu, including cough and bronchitis; for digestive distress; for loss of appetite (specifically, anorexia); as a stimulant; and for “cool extremities” (possibly to improve circulation). Current research supports ginger’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiplatelet, hypotensive, hypolipidemic, and anti-nausea effects, as well as its value in treating osteoarthritis.

In 2015, ginger ranked 8th in the mainstream market and 41st in the natural market for combined sales of almost $28 million. It has great potential as an ingredient in functional foods such as cereals, bars, and prepared main dishes, and beverages like juice and tea blends.

Beyond Flavor

In addition to the popular supplements discussed above, there are a number of other botanicals in the top 40 in herbal supplement sales that are prime candidates for consideration as ingredients in healthy food and beverage formulations. These are herbs and spices used primarily for their flavor, yet they also have strong, healthful phytochemical components.

One botanical in this category that’s seeing a huge leap in interest is purslane (Portulaca oleracea). The small, edible, succulent green is ubiquitous, growing wild throughout the world; you can even likely find it between the cracks of your sidewalk in late summer. A popular salad green in Europe since the Middle Ages, purslane spent decades “lost” to the American palate.

Purslane’s flavor, likened to fresh asparagus, recently recaptured the attention of chefs and has been slowly making its way onto menus in higher-end restaurants. However, researchers have discovered significant nutraceutical benefits in the plant. In a recent double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, the efficacy and safety of purslane extract was shown to control blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and lipid profile in adults with type 2 diabetes mellitus. In the study, only 180 mg/day was needed for effective results.

The common herb sage, too, has demonstrated power that surpasses adding savory herbal flavor notes to foods. To date, five published clinical studies have demonstrated cognitive performance benefits from sage related to the use of two separate species of the plant. Essential oil from Spanish sage (Salvia lavandulifolia) was noted to improve the quality and speed of memory, especially long-term memory, and garden sage (Salvia officinalis) leaf improved cognitive performance in - attention tasks.

Coffee fruit—the whole “cherry,” including the bean—while providing low levels of caffeine, contains high levels of phenolic compounds with antioxidant activity, as well as the B vitamin riboflavin. It has demonstrated positive effects on brain function and an ability to help boost athletic performance.

Preliminary clinical studies have shown that an extract of coffee fruit stimulates the production of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a neuroprotein known to be central to brain health. Whole coffee fruit powder can increase levels of Nrf2, a transcription factor known to regulate expression of antioxidant proteins that promote healthier aging and protect against oxidative damage.

Major Melon

Readily available in Asian and specialty supermarkets, bitter melon (Momordica charantia, Cucurbitaceae), a cousin of the cucumber, is a common food ingredient in Indian and Chinese culinary traditions. A good source of vitamin C, it also contains vitamin A, phosphorus, and iron. But it also is loaded with phenolic compounds and flavonoids, including triterpenes, insulin-like peptides, and cucurbitanes. The latter have been shown to have cancer chemopreventive properties in animal studies.

Bitter melon also has been used in traditional medicine throughout Asia, Africa, and Central and South America for regulation of blood glucose in people with diabetes. In addition, it has been traditionally used to treat g.i. troubles (including peptic ulcers and colic), to stimulate menstruation, and as an antiviral against measles and hepatitis.

Bitter melon also has been employed to increase breast milk flow, and to treat eczema, malaria, gout, jaundice, abdominal pain, kidney stones, pneumonia, psoriasis, rheumatism, and fever. The fruits are aptly named and thus typically are soaked in salt water or parboiled before cooking to reduce the bitter taste.

It should be noted that many of the above purported benefits of bitter melon are anecdotal and many of the research studies had conflicting results. However, the research does more strongly support its anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory benefits, as well as an ability to help reduce body fat and intra-abdominal fat and improve abnormal lipid levels. Benefits for mitigating hypertension associated with diabetes also appear to be supported.

The evidence of bitter melon’s anti-diabetes benefits is strong enough that, because the effects on patients who take medication or insulin to manage diabetes remain unknown, consumers on diabetes medications should check with their physicians before ingesting the fruit.

Flower Power

Known as Flor de jamaica (ha-MY-kah) in Mexico and sorrel in Jamaica, roselle or hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa, Malvaceae or mallow family) is the source of the bright fuchsia-red calyces (the cup-like part that holds the petals) found in some popular herbal teas. Hibiscus calyces can also be found preserved in sugar to be used to garnish beverages, and are used by adventurous chefs in dessert recipes, such as cheesecake.

In hot climates such as in Egypt and Sudan, the tea is used as a refrigerant, to help lower body temperature.

Long popular in North Africa and the Middle East, hibiscus is used to lower blood pressure; treat cough, sore throat, genital problems, CVD, and nerve diseases. Hibiscus is a mild diuretic, and lowers blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Saffron (Crocus sativus, Iridaceae or iris family) has long been known as the world’s most expensive culinary spice. The only parts used are the three small stigmas in the center of the flower, and those are so delicate they must be hand-collected in the field. It takes more than 1 million of them—around six acres’ worth—to yield 5lb of saffron, which sells for up to $2,000 wholesale.

Saffron has not been as valued in the West for its medicinal action. But it has since ancient times in Persia, Greece, Egypt, and India. In fact, the already relatively meager herbal supplement sales of saffron were down by almost 38% from 2014 to 2015, to a mere $241,000. This could be about to change, based on new research.

Traditionally, saffron was used for asthma, cramps, menstrual symptoms, liver conditions, pain, and “diseases of the brain.” Recent research has demonstrated that saffron stigma extracts show activity in treating depression, Alzheimer’s disease, menstrual symptoms, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and cardiovascular health, and can help promote weight loss.

Perhaps even more interesting to food and beverage formulators, recent research on saffron petal extracts have shown activity in treating depression as well as sexual dysfunction induced by the commonly prescribed antidepressants, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). The extracts are effective for both women and men, as well as for sexual dysfunction not caused by SSRIs.

Additional studies that did not specify the plant part used showed positive outcomes in addressing AMD and PMS, reducing snack cravings, improving cognition, and delaying onset of muscle soreness after strenuous exercise.

If further research establishes that saffron petals are as effective as the stigma in addressing these common health concerns, petal-based preparations could become more accessible and affordable, enhancing their desirability as a food and beverage component, particularly as a potential functional coloring agent.

Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis, S. sphenanthera, Schisandraceae family) is a five-flavored fruit from two species, used in TCM to promote long life while reducing the signs of aging by mitigating the impact of physical and mental stress on the body. The skin and pulp of schisandra berries are considered both sweet and sour; the seed is pungent and bitter; and the fruit, overall, is salty.

Traditionally, schisandra berry has been used to reduce inflammation and to treat asthma, chronic coughs, diarrhea, disturbed sleep, insomnia, frequent urination, night sweats, and palpitations.

In addition to schisandra’s history of use in TCM, Russian scientists have been studying the berry since the early 1960s for its adaptogenic effects on a variety of body systems including central nervous, sympathetic, endocrine, immune, respiratory, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems.

Clinical studies conducted on schisandra have demonstrated significant pharmacological effects including increased endurance, mental performance, accuracy of movement, and physical work capacity; improved visual acuity and night vision; prevention of chemotherapy-induced immunosuppression in cancer; improvements in gastric hyper- and hypo-secretion, chronic gastritis and stomach and duodenal ulcers; influenza and pneumonia; and in the normalization of arterial blood pressure and cardiac rhythm in hypo- and hypertensive patients.

Schisandra is a rich source of antioxidant compounds which are theorized to be the mechanism behind many of its stress-modulating actions. The lignans (polyphenolic compounds) present in schisandra berry seeds are linked to inflammation reduction and can lower elevated liver enzymes while increasing glutathione production in liver cells. Dried schisandra berries are commonly prepared as teas and tinctures but also can be incorporated into foods and beverages with careful formulation to balance their complex flavor.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of botanical ingredients suitable for inclusion in food and beverages formulations. Whether fruit, root, seed, oil, or other plant part, the botanical realm contains a plethora of already popular plant allies that can be incorporated into the diet to improve consumers’ daily health. They offer the best of both worlds—culinary and medicinal—sought by today’s consumers.

Originally appeared in the January, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Botanical Bounty.

Gayle Engels is Special Projects Director, and Jenny Perez is the Education Coordinator, for the American Botanical Council (ABC) in Austin, Texas. Founded by executive director Mark Blumenthal, the ABC is an independent 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization providing science-based and traditional information to promote the responsible use of herbal medicine through online news and information resources, market and conference reports, research reviews and book reviews about the status of herbal medicine and botanicals. ABC programs and services also include HerbalGram, a journal of peer-reviewed articles on legal and regulatory updates, ethnobotanical and modern clinical research. ABC serves healthcare professionals, industry, regulators, the media and the public. ABC also provides active internship programs for healthcare students in a range of modalities and professions. Find out more at