Consumer interest in plant-based foods for health is continuing to grow, and it’s important to note that this includes those plants that have a history of medicinal value. In the form of dietary supplements, such herbals have nearly doubled in sales from 2000 to today, cracking $7 billion in annual retail sales.

Many of these botanicals have crossed over into the world of foods and beverages, driven by a combination of expanding scientific support of ancient medicinal practice, consumers more eager to seek alternatives to pharmaceuticals, and awareness of benefits to be had from specific herbs, spices, roots, and leaves.

Other factors stimulating expansion of herbal ingredients into the foods and beverages we’ll see in the new year and beyond is ensured safety and availability. An example would be sea buckthorn, which is experiencing a surge in interest not only for its concentrated content of omega oils, antioxidants, and vitamins, but increased access to high-quality product.

Dozens of botanicals are discovered and enter the market annually, while many other plant ingredients, such as garlic, chia, ginger, cinnamon, and green tea, have always held a strong presence. A forecast of the botanical ingredients that will be big players in the coming year can only serve as a spotlight. 

Considering the American Botanical Council’s report on the top 40 sellers in the US Natural Channel, here are a “Top Five” botanicals to watch for growing food and beverage ingredient use.

Turmeric already might seem “old hat” but it’s experiencing a sudden surge. Combined sales in the natural and mainstream market jumped by around a third to $70 million and 2018 will likely welcome a number of foods and beverages using the anti-inflammatory, immunity enhancing relative of ginger and galangal.

Wheat/barley grass, briefly popular a generation ago, making what could be a significant comeback on the tails of the “green” revolution started by kale.

Maca, an Andean root vegetable surprisingly high in protein and minerals, has been behind the scenes, so to speak, for a couple of years now but now has gained attention via the increased interest in Peruvian cuisine.

Coconut oil is getting a lift not only from the “all things coconut” craze but the recognition that it is high in MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides), the new ingredient darling for weight management and energy.

Mushrooms have gained increased recognition as healthful ingredients. This crossover of mushrooms to nutraceutical status is seeing rapid growth in companies using exotic mushrooms such as shiitake, maitake, and porcini and even more astringent medicinal mushrooms, such as reishi, in foods and beverages and concoctions.

A runner-up to this herbal handful to watch is burdock. A staple for decades in the Asian and specialty supermarkets in the US, it’s showing up more widely in everything from roasted burdock root snacks to herbal root beers, pre-packaged selections of herbs and roots, and even burdock lip balm. However, there are not so many prepared items available that it would preclude food and beverage companies from developing new products.  

Originally appeared in the December, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Botanical Benefits.