There’s no doubt that 2018 will be the Year of the Probiotics. Yes, 2017 was already given that sobriquet, but both the eruption of science behind probiotics and health, and the rapid expansion of probiotic-enhanced products is showing no signs of slowing—or even pausing for breath.

The beneficial microbes have found inclusion in a spectrum of foods and beverages and even have moved into topical products as well, such as hair and skin care items. And for a good reason: the research is there to support their impressive array of health benefits ranging from digestive health, immune function, heart health, weight management, mental well-being, dental health, skin health and mitigation of symptoms of diabetes, allergies, and asthma.

There’s not as much value to probiotics, however, if they’re not well-fed, so where probiotics go, prebiotics will follow. Interest in inulin, resistant starch, and other fibers and fiber-like ingredients is growing fast as processors work to keep the average consumer’s biome in balance.

With the two stellar classes of nutraceutical ingredients casting such a big shadow, choosing the top emerging individual nutraceutical ingredients to keep an eye on in 2018 called for perspective. The biggest criterion was to be realistic as to what could follow such a trajectory as hard-
working, multitalented microbes. The first questions asked when considering an ingredient were, “Can it be practically incorporated into foods and beverages…and if so, should it be?”

Also, the stress is on “emerging.” Some of the most popular ingredients currently that fit all the desired criteria can no longer be said to be up-and-coming. Turmeric, the other darling of 2017, is now available everywhere. It is in scores of beverages and foods, and is being sold fresh in just about every major supermarket in the US. And not the shriveled up tiny roots you used to only be able to find in IndoPak markets in big cities, but good, fresh, fat rhizomes in the local Safeway.

Still, there’s life in some ingredients that seem to be the “boy bands” of functional foods. Take coconut. Anything coconut was a sure bet for the past few years. And just as that seemed to begin plateauing, medium-chain triglycerides (a.k.a. MCT oils) became a nutrition fad. As rich sources of MCTs, coconut is on the rise again, especially coconut oil. But this fad is worth it; there is good research lending evidence to support the craze.

Still At the Gate

There are reasons that ashwagandha, in spite of massive marketing that familiarized it to millions, remains on the fringes. When your hard-to-pronounce name is a turn-off—“ashwagandha” roughly translated from the Sanskrit means “smells like a horse”—adding a bitter flavor and finicky solubility create tough obstacles to overcome.

Other hurdles for a great “better-for-you” food or beverage ingredient are self-imposed. Coenzyme Q-10 and astaxanthin come to mind. Their use in edible delivery systems has remained minimal not because their benefits are overblown (in fact, their efficacy has strong science behind it) or because they difficult to use but because their economic value as supplements and cosmeceuticals makes food and drink usage the equivalent of a “loss leader.”

The same is true for ingredients that have yet to reach a tipping point that would make them economically feasible in wide application. The tocotrienol form of vitamin E is one example. The powerful antioxidant, with several hundred times the antioxidant power of its sibling, tocopherol, has some catching up to do before it can be as ubiquitous. But the science behind it is so strong, it puts it in the same level as omega 3 fatty acids and probiotics. Give it another year or two.

Another still-emerging functional is high-protein duckweed. This simplest of water plants has the potential to feed the world. It can be grown in ponds and enjoyed fresh or dried into a powder that resembles spinach powder and yet has a much less intrusive taste. It will unequivocally be the kale of the late 20-teens if mass-production hurdles can be overcome.

Mushrooms and mushroom-derived ingredients are examples of ingredients that have reached that point. Combining ancient medical wisdom, hard science, and deep, meaty “umami” flavor (perfect for the still-growing vegetarian/vegan trend), their use in products with a marketed health benefit is going to continue to grow and flourish such that 2018 could also be considered the Year of the Mushroom.

Speaking of umami, seaweed will be leaping further forward in the coming years. Kelp, nori, seabeans, and the numerous other species that are cultivated for food are an incredible source of multiple minerals, especially iodine and potassium, and a full range of vitamins (both lipid-soluble and water-soluble). Add in weight-managing and cancer- and inflammation-countering phytochemicals, and these greens of the sea are near-perfect sources of cheap and healthy food.

Seaweed also is a major natural source of glutamic acid that gives it the aforementioned umami
capacity. With multiple reports of the global collapse of the seafood supply, the fact that seaweed is a major flavor component of seafood analogs only adds to the attraction.

And 2018 could also be the Year of the Return of Purple. Anthocyanin-colored (purple, red, blue) plants were all the rage at the dawn of the 2000s, securing the term “superfood” into the vernacular. Phytochemical- rich purple yams, purple barley, black elderberry, black currant, and aronia berries have been coming onto the market with great success recently, and why not? They’re pretty, delicious, and concentrated sources of vitamins and antioxidants. 

Written by David Feder, RDN, Prepared Foods executive technical editor. Readers may contact him at or at 847-405-4081.

BFY Produce

Robert Schueller, manager at Melissa’s World Variety Produce Inc., expects the just-expanded availability of better-for-you produce items to hit big next year. He points to exotics like sweet yellow dragonfruit—high in vitamin C, iron, and protein—and jackfruit. Jackfruit is high in fiber and carotenoids (especially lutein and zeaxanthin), and has lots of tryptophan as well. Sea buckthorn berries also are a good example. They’re among the most concentrated and complete plant sources of omega fatty acids, rich in omegas 3, 6, 7, and 9. And they’re tasty, too—always a good formula for successful adoption.