Advances in ingredient technology are opening new corridors to make the addition of botanicals into foods and beverages easier and more cost-effective.

Botanicals should be a consideration for developers wanting to, as Hippocrates commanded, “Let food be thy medicine.” Leading global health challenges—such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, infectious disease, structural health (bones, joints, muscles), and even mental health concerns—all can benefit from the addition of botanical extracts to the daily diet. 

Purer and more effective forms of these ingredients derived from herbs, spices, roots, seeds, flowers, and other plant parts are helping product developers create foods and beverages that are not only tasty but functional.

Still, there are some challenges to bringing botanicals into a formulation. Some are bitter, some have yet to be approved as GRAS, and some are prohibitively expensive. But with thousands to choose from, the dedicated developer still has access to a formidable portfolio. The following are just a sampling of some amazing botanicals that should be on the fast track for addition to foods and beverages.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that, because many botanicals contain multiple nutritional compounds, there also are multiple areas of health they can impact. Using these “crossover points” can allow a processor to formulate products that cast a broader net of health.


Berry Nice

As with other red and purple berries, aronia berries (also called chokeberries) are high in vitamins, including folate, vitamin A, vitamin E, and especially vitamin C. They also have one of the highest concentrations of polyphenolic antioxidants, especially anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, of any plant.

Salmon with Aronia Berry Sauce
Aronia berries are among the most concentrated sources of vitamins and the heart-healthy polyphenolic compounds anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: John Kirchen for Coldbrook Farm Inc. (

This high level of antioxidants and other nutrients means the aronia can provide healthful benefits such as reductions in inflammation and C-reactive protein levels. Aronias can improve circulation by strengthening capillary walls and can inhibit the enzymes that break down collagen, making them ideal for “beauty from within” products.

In addition to the known antioxidant benefits, aronia also has been shown to help improve function of the circulatory, respiratory, and digestive systems; help manage blood sugar; protect against cancer; protect the liver and eyes; and fight urinary tract infections.
The sweet-tart berries are domestically grown and more readily available in dried form than fresh, although the frozen pulp is becoming easier to acquire. Aronia juice and concentrated extracts of the juice also are common forms of the ingredient.

For more on floral botanicals, see “Flower Power.”



Whoever looked at an artichoke (Cynara cardunculus) and decided it was something good to eat should now be considered a genius due to the amazing health benefits of this humble thistle. Artichokes are packed with fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. Consuming artichokes and artichoke extract is linked to reduced cholesterol levels, as well as reduced inflammation and improved blood flow.

Artichokes also have a history of use as a detoxification ingredient due to compounds in the plant that help to stimulate bile production. Increased bile production is helpful for enabling digestion as well as the absorption of lipid-soluble nutrients. Without proper bile production, many essential nutrients and fatty acids are not properly absorbed.

Artichokes are a source of inulin, a short-chain fiber that has a prebiotic effect and can help improve gut flora. Additionally, this fiber provides benefits in weight loss and blood sugar control. As common as artichokes are, they are an underused plant in the food and beverage industry. But some processors have caught on. 

Artichokes should be considered in products aimed at benefitting the digestive system. An unusual yet powerful phytochemical in artichokes is the flavonoid antioxidant silymarin (also found in the herb milk thistle). It has proven health benefits, especially protective benefits, for the liver.


Birch Benefits

While there certainly is a generous number of waters on the market already, one should not be overlooked. Betula, more commonly known as birch, is the source of a smooth, slightly sweet water that has been consumed as a health tonic in Slavic, Scandinavian, and Baltic countries for centuries. It has made inroads into the US marketplace and is prized not only for its refreshing flavor but also the minerals calcium, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium, zinc, and iron.

The primary health areas addressed by betula include cholesterol and weight management, liver health, and joint health. One of the phytochemicals found in betula is known as a saponin, which has been shown to help lower cholesterol. Other compounds in the plant are considered detoxifiers and anti-inflammatory agents.

While typically sold on its own, birch water is worth incorporating into products that target joint health and sports nutrition. For example, besides helping to control inflammation, betula can help clear the body of uric acid, which tends to build up in joints, especially after strenuous exercise. 


Hops to It

It is easy to have a one-track mind when the word “hops” comes up. One word, really: beer. However, hops (Humulus lupulus) have the potential for a larger position in the food and beverage arena due to their broad flavor profile and use in the health arena.

Brewmasters take advantage of centuries of knowledge of the flavor notes that hops can contribute to their beer, adjusting the amounts to complement and create a spectrum of nuances in the final products, from brisk and bitter to floral and citrusy. The flavor and floral scent of hops can provide added benefits to many food and non-brewed beverage formulations.

In addition to their organoleptic characteristics, there are studied positive impacts on health from hops. They are high in essential oils that give them a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, and they have been noted for relieving joint discomfort and reducing post-workout inflammation.

As with many botanicals, hops are high in antioxidants. In natural medicine, hops primarily are used to help relax muscles, reduce stress, and aid sleep. They do not impart a drowsy effect as do many ingredients for stress and sleep. This makes them an ingredient that can be used safely and effectively, either intermittently or regularly.


Ground Cover

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is another traditional botanical ingredient that has been used by Northern and Eastern Europeans for centuries. Modern research has been establishing support for a number of benefits, including an ability to mitigate fatigue and mental stress and promote a sense of well-being.

Some studies have shown that rhodiola could improve cognitive functioning related to fatigue, and some initial research investigated it as a possible neuroprotective agent to counter toxins. In an animal study, compounds in rhodiola appeared to reduce stress-induced binge eating. The suggested mechanisms for these effects is based on indications that rhodiola acts as a serotonergic agent (that is, it increases levels of serotonin) while lowering corticosteroids.

As a protective ingredient against everyday stressors, the management of cortisol is important. Called the “stress hormone,” cortisol stays high for a long period of time under conditions of emotional or physical stress.

This can cause a cascade effect that alters your body’s blood glucose response, can lead to abdominal weight gain, thyroid issues, lowered immunity, and imbalance of other hormones. These conditions also have an impact on focus, memory, and cognition.

For the energy and athletic performance crowd, rhodiola is right up their alley. Rhodiola can increase stamina and endurance and can dramatically improve an athlete’s performance and delay fatigue. It also has anti-inflammatory benefits that help with muscle recovery and improve endurance.

Tribes in Southern Africa have a long history of using sceletium (Sceletium tortuosum) as an edible or tincture to address stress and anxiety. Research has yielded positive support for its beneficial effects and found that it will begin working after the first dose. Such quick impact is not often seen with botanicals; they typically need weeks or even months to show a benefit or change in health.

Besides the impact on stress and anxiety, sceletium is considered to be a mood enhancer, used for improving focus and helping to boost energy. 

One plant that has been attracting a lot of attention in the past few years is moringa (Moringa oleifera), a Brassica-type plant (such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and mustard) that grows throughout Africa and Asia. Moringa’s nutritional profile reads like a laundry list of nutraceuticals. It is rich in vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids, carotenoids, and other antioxidants.

Compounds in the plant have  shown antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and even pain-blocking capacity. A new study indicated that moringa contains phytochemicals that can help “protect the brain against… nicotine-induced neurobehavioral disturbances and cerebellar degeneration.”
Moringa can be incorporated into foods and beverages. The raw roots have a slightly pungent flavor similar to moringa’s distant cousin, horseradish. The plant’s leaves have been described as having a slightly nutty taste. The seed pods look similar to and reportedly taste like green beans.


A Little Spice

Saffron Roads Dish with Spices
Fennel, black cumin, and fenugreek are examples of traditional medicinal spices commonly used in South Asian foods for both flavor and health.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: Saffron Roads Foods (

Spices are perhaps the best-known botanical agents, central to Ayurvedic medicine and among the most studied by modern science. The antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-tumorigenic, and analgesic properties of spices such as clove and cinnamon are well-established. But other spices, too, have powerful health effects yet receive little notice from food and beverage makers. 

Black cumin (Nigella sativa), also called black caraway and kalonji seeds, are used in many South Asian dishes and have a tradition of supporting immune health, managing blood sugar levels, and aiding respiratory health. In addition to the seeds, black cumin oil recently has been gaining attention as consumers have become more aware of exotic cooking and flavoring oils.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is another spice, as a seed and an herb, common to South Asian cuisine as well as in many Near and Middle Eastern dishes. With a slightly bitter flavor profile, small amounts add distinct flavor notes to savory foods. 

In folk medicine, fenugreek herb is believed to help with breast milk production and increased libido in men. Research indicates an ability to fight inflammation and improve digestion.


Formulate with Care

When looking into using botanicals in product formulations, we need to focus attention on those ingredients that are patented and trademarked and have clinical research to prove they work. Anyone can grind up a plant and sell it, but only those companies committed to quality and efficacious ingredients will take the extra time and financial commitment to stand behind their ingredients.

Different Colors of Prickly Pears
A nutrient-rich fruit that can be used for sorbets, beverages, smoothies, and sauces, the common and ubiquitous prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is ripe for wider commercial use.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: Wikimedia Commons (

Not all herbs are created equal and depending on the herb, using the right form, the right part of the plant, and the right extraction process can make all the difference in the world. If formulators are going the extra mile to put botanicals into products, they need to make sure they use ingredients that are proven to work and apply them in the correct therapeutic amounts.

Botanicals also are not intended as cure-alls, especially in food and beverage formulations. In fact, processors need to be aware of all permitted—and prohibited—claims for labeling purposes.

Still, it is clear that botanicals can and should play a greater role in more functional foods and beverages. These appealing-to-consumers ingredients can help product developers meet expanding consumer demand for products that are flavorful, fulfilling, and have that “little bit extra” for the body and mind.  

Originally appeared in the March, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Nature to the Rescue.