Botanicals are big. The combination of health and flavor has proven irresistible to today’s consumer, thrilled at knowing that the tikka masala dinner they bought contains turmeric, fenugreek, and ginger to help fight inflammation and balance blood sugar.

Products such as elderflower soda, beet and orange soup with basil, and green tea ice cream are claiming shelf space and drawing buyers away from the herbal supplement aisle. 

The US consumer has evolved to become more “adventurous,” according to Innova Market Insights. In fact, the research group tagged the “Adventurous Consumer” as the top trend of 2019.

As people have become more connected, more global, they have become more knowledgeable about other cultures and more interested in trying things that were once considered exotic. They also are exposed to, and more open to trying, herbal approaches to mitigating certain conditions.

While claims that can be made about a botanical ingredient are strictly limited, information is not. A wealth of studies, reports, and resources on botanicals abounds on the Internet. And while some of that information is inaccurate, overblown, or misleading, good science has increasingly been supporting the traditional applications of botanicals.


The 1994 passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) set the stage for more opportunities for the consumer to become adventurous. The use of herbs and spices has focused increasingly on their dual role as nutraceuticals, and this has led to a rapid expansion of plant-derived ingredients and compounds that fit the nutraceutical category. Beyond herbs and spices, certain fruits and vegetables became known as “superfruits” or “superfoods,” and the term “phytochemicals” entered the vernacular.


Trending Now

With literally thousands of plant-derived ingredients to choose from, food and beverage developers and manufacturers that focus on health and well-being can exercise limitless creativity. New and rediscovered botanical ingredients are surfacing almost daily. While not all are suitable for foods and beverages, many are. For the adventurous developer willing to do a little extra legwork to source such emerging botanicals, here are more than a dozen worth noting.

• Baobab fruit (Adansonia digitata)

The most iconic tree in Africa bears a huge fruit that makes a nutritious addition to foods. Although baobab fruit has a long history of food use in Africa, it has only been garnering attention in this country since its fruit acquired a “No Objections” GRAS status. The fruit pulp has an unusually dry and sticky, almost powdery texture. Its flavor is tart and described as lemony. These qualities make it highly suitable for use in blended fruit drinks, smoothies, and bars.

Baobab fruit is high in vitamin C (74-163 mg per 100gm), prebiotic fiber, and antioxidants, and it has a good electrolyte profile. It also has an unusually high level of calcium. It’s been recognized as an anti-inflammatory and digestive health star, plus its oils provide a good complement of omega fatty acids and vitamins A, D, and E.


• Sacha inchi (Plukenetia volubilis)

Sacha inchi is a tropical seed from South America that also is called the Inca Peanut. It comes from a vine that produces its fruits as capsules with four to seven points and has been rebranded “Star Seed” by one producer. It can be enjoyed as a roasted nutty snack or nut butter. It also is high in protein, with a favorable ratio of omega fatty acids (about 47-51% omega-3 and 34-37% omega-6).

In fact, sacha inchi has the highest content of omega-6 compared to olive, soy, maize and sunflower oils. Sacha inchi oil has also been shown to increase HDL cholesterol, is a complete protein at 8g/oz, and also is a good source of iron and fiber. With its nutritional benefits, a mild flavor, and a GRAS status as of 2014, sacha inchi is ready to be a star. 

• Perilla (Perilla frutescens)

Also known in Asian countries as shiso, perilla has a long history of use in foods, especially in Asian cuisine, where it is used as a vegetable, both fresh and in stir fry, and the seed is also used for making a cooking oil. There have been several studies on perilla showing its potential for promoting immune health, anti-inflammation, and now digestive health. 

“Perilla is a highly interesting plant for foods, as it not only provides functional health benefits, but is safe, with a long history of food use,” notes Jim Simon, PhD, a professor at Rutgers University and director of its New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products program. “Perilla also comes in many aesthetically beautiful varieties, not only the green- and purple-leaved, but also those mixed with different variegations.” Perilla contains powerful antioxidant anthocyanins, the source of its purple color. (It also can be used as a food colorant, for that matter.) Perilla also contains rosmarinic acid, which gives the plant functionality for food preservation, as well as antioxidant,  anti-inflammatory, and general health benefits.

• Schizandra (Schisandra chinensis; S. sphenanthera)

Schizandra has long been a prominent botanical in traditional Chinese medicine. It’s favored in Asian culture for supposedly embodying all five flavors — sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty. In fact, its Chinese name, wu wei zi, means just that: “five taste fruit.” Much of its clinical substantiation is for promoting liver health, but it is commonly used as a tonic herb and adaptogen for helping the mind and body cope with stress. 

Although schizandra has been present in dietary supplements in the US for a long time, its use is increasing, as adaptogens are a currently hot category. “What many people don’t realize is that schizandra has a strong traditional food and beverage use and would be very interesting in foods for not only its unique flavor qualities, but also functionality,” said Josef Brinckmann, research fellow with Traditional Medicinals. With mounting clinical substantiation, an interesting flavor, history of use, and current use in dietary supplement products, schizandra could cross over into more food applications, such as beverages (juices and wines), sauces, fruit teas, and desserts.

• Camu camu (Myrciaria dubia)

Camu camu, a tropical fruit from the Amazon, currently is available in the US as a dietary supplement for a natural vitamin C source. In fact, it’s one of the most concentrated natural sources of the vitamin known — 100g of fresh fruit typically yields about 2,200 mg or more of the vitamin, second only to the Kakadu plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana). In South America, camu camu is used in juices, ice creams, and popsicles, enjoyed for its tart-brisk flavor. It also is rich in antioxidants and functions as an anti-inflammatory agent.

Research at the Linus Pauling Institute and Case Western Reserve University recently confirmed that the vitamin C form natural to camu camu is a completely novel molecule. It is the first significant finding in vitamin C since the nutrient was originally discovered in the 1930s. The new molecule of vitamin C — designated JS0208MD — is a covalently bonded molecule of the densest form of ascorbic acid plus naturally occurring nitric oxide. And if that isn’t enough, research also uncovered a wealth of anthocyanins, polyphenols, flavonoids, and other phytochemical compounds, making camu camu practically a pharmacy in a fruit.

The Amazon is one of the largest and most concentrated areas in the world that are treasure troves of untapped and undiscovered beneficial botanicals. Yet it also is the most threatened. Responsible product developers will be sure to source their ingredients from reliable suppliers that adhere only to ethical and sustainable practices.

• Honeybush (Cyclopia spp.)

Honeybush made its debut on the US market as a tea but didn’t take off due to an uninspiring grassy flavor. “The market had it wrong,” opines Rutgers’ Jim Simon, PhD. “Honeybush must first be fermented in order to release the aroma and flavor.” 

Since honeybush’s initial introduction, scientific research behind the plant has increased, giving hope that it will receive a more welcome reintroduction. In a double blind, placebo-controlled study, honeybush demonstrated protective effects against aging of skin as well as cellular protective and immune-modulating capacity. With an improved flavor profile and mounting scientific support, honeybush should soon find its way into beverages and nutrition bars.

• Yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) 

Its name means “sacred herb” in Spanish, and it has a centuries-long tradition of use for multiple ailments, especially respiratory problems such as asthma and congestion. Yerba santa is known to contain powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other health-benefitting phytochemicals. Its flavor is sweet and herbaceous, and it is often used as a bitterness masker in pharmaceuticals.

Recent studies identified one compound in yerba santa — sterubin — that showed impressive neurotrophic (nerve growth) activity. Combined with its protective effects against oxidative stress and cell energy loss, sterubin is a possible aid against the onslaught of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.

• Hoja santa (Piper auritum)

Often confused with yerba santa, hoja santa — “sacred leaf” in Spanish —is related to pepper and has a flavor that has been described as root beer mixed with eucalyptus. Others liken it to sassafras or licorice. The leaves are broad and vibrant green and used in many dishes in Mexican cuisine, from posole to mole and egg dishes. In traditional Central American herbology, hoja santa is used to aid digestion and to ease colic, and as a diuretic. It also has been investigated for possible anesthetic properties.


Noodle Salad with Seaweed


From the Sea

by Yossi Tal, PhD

Seaweed has been part of the human food supply since ancient times, providing a rich source of nutrients from the Mediterranean to Asia. In modern times, the largest consumers of seaweed are China, Japan, and Korea, where seaweed is included at nearly every meal.

Read the full article.


Up and Coming

Beyond the botanical ingredients that are currently emerging, there is an exciting and vast world of botanicals waiting for the right conditions or further development until they can make a breakthrough in the marketplace.

• Lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora)

This native of Australia is an immediate hit with formulators once they try it. The flavorful herb has been used for centuries by the Aboriginal people of Australia and has the highest concentration in any known herb of citral — the terpene compound that gives lemongrass and lemon verbena their deep citrus aroma and flavor. Lemon myrtle has a history of use as a spice, a flavoring, a tea, and a traditional medicine, and is currently seeking GRAS status in the US from the FDA.


• Kakadu (Terminalia ferdinandiana)

Given consumers’ interest in whole food-derived vitamins, the Kakadu plum deserves the top spot for vitamin C, containing the highest known vitamin C content of any fruit on the planet — reportedly between 2300-5300 mg/100g. Similar in size to an olive or cherry, the Kakadu plum also contains more total phenolic compounds than blueberries and an impressive profile of antioxidant polyphenols.

Popular in jams and juices in Australia, this plum has tremendous potential in the US market for adventurous food consumers seeking functional benefits, flavor, and getting their vitamins from natural food sources. With a sweet-sour flavor and an aroma reminiscent of stewed apples and pears, potential applications include sauces, chutneys, juices, ice creams, and desserts, as well as yogurts and breakfast bowls. 

• Lucuma (Pouteria lucuma)

According to The Fresh Market Research Group, high-flavor fruits will be among the top produce sellers in 2019. Brazil and the Amazonian basin boast a number of interesting fruits that are popular in Latin American culture, but haven’t quite made it to the US. Part of the problem is related to supply and demand. But as tastes globalize and consumers become more adventurous, this is changing.

Lucuma is one fruit that has enjoyed an increase in production and now could be poised for expansion due to optimal market conditions. It has a unique flavor (sometimes described as resembling butterscotch or maple syrup), mounting evidence of health benefits, and a long tradition of use in South America in juices, milk shakes, and ice creams.

• Buchu (Agathosma betulina) 

This herb from South Africa contains an essential oil that provides a strong blackcurrant flavor and a light minty scent. It also has traditional medicinal uses and is touted as a curative for many ailments. Although scientific investigation is needed to support the anecdotal evidence, preliminary investigations have indicated the herb has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.


• Cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum)

In Brazil, as well as through Central and South America, the fruit of cupuaçu is extremely popular, consumed commonly in popsicles, ice creams, juices, and other sweet snacks. Cupuaçu is from the Theobroma genus and a close relative to cacao — the source of chocolate. The fruit pulp is white and has a scent described as being a cross between chocolate and pineapple, but the flavor is strongly that of chocolate, with just a hint of coffee. It is lighter in color, with hints of red, so it does not impart the rich brown hue that cocoa does in a prepared food.

Cupuaçu is suitable for any food or beverage that would traditionally include chocolate and can add a sweet flavor to traditionally savory foods, such as salsas or sauces.

Like chocolate, cupuaçu also contains theobromine, theophylline and slight amounts of caffeine. It also contains a unique type of phytochemical called theograndin. The lower caffeine content could be one marketing advantage, as is the fruit’s potential as a suitable alternative to chocolate. 

The untapped biodiversity available for use in better-for-you foods and beverages is truly vast. It is estimated that 86% of species on Earth remain undiscovered. The increased awareness, use, application, and valuation of botanicals in human nutrition, along with the drive for greater sustainable use of the planet’s resources, will ensure a place for the numerous botanical ingredients that are coming to light every day.