The perfect storm of clean label, a growing “better for you” holistic approach to diet, and the expansion of plant-based eating continues to drive consumer interest in food as medicine. At the center of this storm are botanical ingredients — the ingredients derived from plants or forms of whole plants that can claim bioactive capacity that addresses a physiological need. 

For food and beverage developers, medicinal plants can be divided into two categories, those that taste good and those that don’t. Most of the latter end up in supplements and, while that includes more than pills (think of liquid “shots” or gummies), pills are still the most common form of botanicals consumed in Americas.

Last fall, the American Botanical Council (ABC) reported that annual herbal supplement sales grew past the $8 billion mark in 2017, effectively doubling since 2000. The ABC report also noted that turmeric is leading the botanical ingredient race (although cannabis is moving up fast — see “The Eye on High”).

These numbers, along with turmeric’s performance in the market, make inspiring indicators for food and beverage developers. Consumers always enjoy opting for something tasty rather than popping a pill. 

As a key ingredient in many South Asian dishes (such as curries), turmeric is an ancient “food as medicine” ingredient with anecdotal health evidence and literature stretching back centuries.


From the Roots

The medicinal properties of turmeric and many other spices from trees, bushes, and roots are comprehensively covered in Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine from India, is thousands of years old but has taken a firm hold among mainstream US consumers.

The aforementioned botanical superstar, turmeric (Curcuma longa), provides a key phytonutrient called curcumin. According to the ABC, turmeric experienced the strongest sales growth in mainstream retail stores last year, with a 46% increase in sales over 2016.

The impressive growth of turmeric is due to the depth of scientific substantiation and ongoing research into this botanical. Studies have demonstrated that curcumin offers multiple concurrent beneficial effects on diverse organ systems.

Turmeric is used in a range of foods and beverages and can cross the lines from wellness shots to spiced main dishes, from cereals to ice cream to flavored lattes—imparting to all its signature yellow color. 

There are several enhanced-absorption versions of turmeric on the market, however, so specific turmeric or curcumin ingredients may be selected to match a particular application.

Moringa (Moringa oleifera) has been gaining a gradual foothold in the US nutraceutical scene recently. All parts of the tree are edible and claim better-for-you benefits. The roots taste like horseradish, but the pods and leaves are used as well. 

The next few years could see moringa gain considerable notice, especially as the ingredient enjoyed a 30% jump in sales between 2016 and today, according to the ABC. 

Moringa’s general health and nutrition benefits traditionally relate to inflammatory conditions, plus cardiovascular, liver, and gastrointestinal health. Moringa powder has become a popular addition to smoothies and various food formulations. It is rich in protein, beta-carotene, vitamin C, calcium, and potassium.


Seeds of Thought

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is gearing up to be a sort of “comeback kid” botanical. A “major player” in Ayurveda and used throughout the cuisines of the Middle East and South Asia, fenugreek experienced an increase in US sales of 33.5% in mainstream channels since 2016, according to the ABC. Its seeds are bitter and must be lightly toasted before being ground; the leaves also are used in many South Asian dishes.

Traditionally used for increasing breast milk production, fenugreek also is used to aid digestion and balance blood sugar. New studies suggest potential applications for conditions such as menopause, male age-related symptoms, and male fertility.

Nigella (Nigella sativa), also known as black cumin seed, experienced a big jump in popularity with a greater than 200% increase in retail sales since 2016, according to the ABC. Nigella is touted for a number of health uses, including digestion, asthma relief, pain relief, antibacterial effect, skin disorders, appetite stimulation, and hypertension. It’s been the subject of a number of scientific studies, and in a study published last September in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, one of its active components, thymoquinone, demonstrated strong antioxidant and cell-protective effects.


Burgeoning Botanicals

In the botanicals and herbals segment, adaptogens and other ingredients that provide mood- and physiology-boosting effects are trending hot, as seen at the 2018 Natural Products Expo West conference. Adaptogens don’t have an official definition, but are essentially herbs that help the body and mind maintain homeostasis or adapt to stress over time. Mood/physiological boosters and adaptogens are definitely buoyed by the current state of over-stress so prevalent among Americans.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) might still be hovering on the fringes of the mainstream, but that has given it time to be the subject of a surge in clinical science. Its adaptogenic use is attractive for food and beverage makers targeting the high-stress lives of many Americans, especially Millennials. 

Also trending as adaptogens are such food and beverage ingredients as reishi mushrooms, holy basil (a.k.a. “tulsi;” Ocimum tenuiflorum), and rhodiola (also called “goldenroot”). These ingredients have been appearing not only in elixirs and wellness shots but in energy balls and even lattes.

Other botanicals re-entering the mainstream are elderberry (and elderflower) and wheatgrass and barley grass. Sales of elderberry (Sambucus) in the natural channel were up nearly 35%. Elderberry is a concentrated source of antioxidants, especially proanthocyanins, and favored for immune and respiratory health. Elderberry is especially prized for its tangy berry flavor and rich violet color.

Sales of wheatgrass (and barley grass) rose more than 44% in 2017, signaling a strong comeback for the health food store favorite of a generation ago. Speculation is that this has been due to increased consumer interest in elixirs to promote general health and wellness.

The leaves of the lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) tree give off a strong lemon scent when crushed and are used to impart a lemony flavor to many foods and beverages. Native to Australia, lemon myrtle is the richest natural source of citral flavoring in the world. It has a rich indigenous culinary history and is used to make healthful herbal teas.

Well-traveled food and beverage developers are looking to Australia and New Zealand for new botanicals and superfruits. One that is particularly popular “down under” is the kakadu (Terminalia ferdinandiana), also called “billygoat plum.”

The kakadu has one of the highest vitamin C contents of any fruit. A 100g serving of the plums can contain from 2,300 to 5,300mg vitamin C (the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin C for adults is 60mg). The kakadu plum is used in Australia for functional jams, sauces, ice-cream, and juices. It’s currently available in the US only as a powder, juice, or concentrate.

Originally appeared in the December, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Botanicals Keep Growing.