The recent explosion in consumer interest in health has led to a substantial jump in demand and sales of better-for-you foods and beverages. And, as consumers seek products with ingredients that can deliver added benefits for immune system health, they are expressing their preferences for natural solutions. Plant-based protections and remedies are an undeniable part of this trend.


One of the trends that will impact food and drink brands in 2021 as identified by experts by the consumer insights research group the FMCG Gurus in a collective survey is that of “proactive living.” Broken down, that indicator comes from 80% of consumers across the globe saying they plan to eat and drink more healthfully this year, with a focus on staying fitter longer.

As can be seen from the top plant-based trends, consumer interests are strongly related to mood and energy. Another top trend identified by FMCG Gurus is “rediscovering health”—wherein consumers are looking to wellbeing as they become more concerned with preventing disease and illness. Functional food and drink products that can deliver this are now sought after by a majority of consumers.

Plant-based and botanical ingredients, especially those with benefits that are evidence-based, were identified as a component of this trend, with 66% of consumers interested in products that improve sleep, 58% interested in products to alleviate stress, and 63% interested in products with a natural energy boost.

“We were already seeing a lot of interest and demand worldwide for our products having to do with stress, energy, and sleep, but mid-way through 2020 the trend definitely increased,” notes Andreas Suter, CEO of global botanical products maker The A. Vogel Group International.

In the FMCG Gurus survey, the botanicals identified as being the most popular for sleep are chamomile (Matricaria recutita or Chamaemelum nobile) at 67%, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) also at 67%, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) at 66%, jasmine (Jasminum sambac) also at 66%, and ginseng (Panax ginseng) at 57%. In previous articles on botanicals we have covered these herbs, as well as other popularly used herbs for sleep, such as ashwagandha (its species name, somnifera, is Latin for “sleep inducing”), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), and hops (Humulus lupulus).

As the market for CBD has been leveling out, different cannabinoid compounds that tout specific functionalities are emerging. One of these, cannabinol (CBN) is showing specific application for promoting better sleep. CBN has been reported as the most sedating of the cannabinoids.

Supplies of CBD and all cannabinoid compounds have increased dramatically, so it’s possible that markets could open up for these other non-intoxicating compounds. Other up-and-coming herbs with traditional sleep applications that could have GRAS justifications (due to traditional food use) include California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), jujube (Ziziphus jujuba), and linden.

A long-time favorite ingredient for sleep is tart cherry. Tart cherries are natural sources of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the body’s sleep cycle. Melatonin is a common sleep supplement. While the FDA regulates melatonin itself as an additive or a dietary supplement, tart cherries have nearly unlimited versatility in foods and beverages and are thus incorporated into a variety of products. (Careful labeling is necessary if promoting such products as sleep aids.)

According to the Energy Drinks Market report by Mordor Intelligence, the global energy drinks market is still booming, with continued growth forecasted to maintain a CAGR of 7.1% through 2025. Formerly a niche product, energy drinks now are one of the fastest growing segments, especially as they are marketed as alternatives to carbonated drinks.

Staple botanicals used in energy products include ashwagandha, maca (Lepidium meyenii), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), ginseng, and natural sources of caffeine and other alkaloid stimulants, including matcha, yerba maté, guayusa, and guarana. Matcha naturally contains not only caffeine, but also high amounts of L-theanine, which acts in a chemically synergistic manner with caffeine to produce a “calm/alert” state. 

There is evidence that the combination of L-theanine with caffeine can extend its effect as well as calm the mind. This has resulted in a number of products on the market that feature the combination — either as matcha itself or as caffeine plus L-theanine — with claims of “no jitters” or “no crash.”

Other energy-promoting botanicals to note are those with high polyphenol content, as they are effective in aiding vein health and circulation, and in doing so also boost energy or help the body recover from exertion or exercise. One example of a high polyphenolic fruit that is clinically shown to aid recovery is the aforementioned tart cherry, and mango leaf has recently gained attention for possible energy-promoting capacity. 

The natural ingredient “greatest hits” for immunity are not easy to miss, as they have become some of the top-selling botanicals. A recent review article detailed the botanicals with documented immunomodulatory, immunostimulatory, and anti-inflammatory activity that stand out for their use in immunity.

Included in this review were adaptogens; Boswellia (Boswellia frereana), also known as frankincense; turmeric (Curcuma longa), the most common source of curcumin; Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea); licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra); umckaloabo, also known as the South African geranium (Pelargonium sidoides); a veritable library of medicinal mushrooms; and elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Elderberry, with evidence of virus-fighting ability, has recently landed at the top of the immunity list.

Echinacea is making a comeback for its immunomodulatory activity, balancing both stimulatory and suppressive effects. It has a good safety profile and a low risk of clinically significant herb-drug interactions. There also are echinacea extracts on the market that carry self-affirmed GRAS documentation.

Often overlooked, umckaloabo is an herb with dozens of clinical studies supporting its long-standing traditional history of use to fend off common colds in South Africa. Safe for adults as well as children, the herb has a low clinical dose and self-affirmed GRAS status, which makes it an attractive candidate for foods and supplements alike. 

Medicinal mushrooms have long been key components for nutritional support in immunity, especially due to their natural beta-glucan content. Beta-glucans have amassed a large amount of supporting clinical studies that show immunomodulating effects. Additionally, some mushroom extracts are GRAS or self-affirmed GRAS, such as reishi (Ganoderma lingzhi), which not only confers immune-supporting properties, but also is known as an adaptogen.

One of the more surprising successful applications for such medicinal mushrooms is mushroom coffee. The product offerings include coffees with other functional attributes, including botanicals for immunity, stress, and resilience. One innovative new product line is from the company Good Pharma, LLC, created by the founders of Mighty Leaf Tea Co.

Good Pharma’s coffees and teas are pour-over products based on botanical combinations that are already popular in Asia, but are now swiftly emerging in the North American market as well. The company’s “Resilience” tea includes a proprietary extract blend of chaga mushroom extract blended with roasted green tea (with elevated epigallocatechin gallate, or “EGCG”), goji berries, and strawberry leaves.

“With Good Pharma, we wanted to use the coffee and tea ritual as a moment to integrate herbs for health-promoting activities,” Jill Portman, Good Pharma cofounder. “But we especially wanted to provide consumers with true efficacy while delivering on flavor.”

Although certain ingredients occupy the current spotlight for immunity, the market will always be open to new ingredients that can make products stand out as fresh takes for any given benefit. Additionally, since the immune system is complex and its support needs diverse, new approaches to a nutritional immune-supporting regimen will continue to be developed.

One herb well positioned for this is an Ayurvedic adaptogen and rejuvenator (or, “rasayana”), Tinospora cordifolia, sometimes called “moonseed.” Not only does tinospora have a traditional history as a plant that helps the body adapt to stress, it also has shown promise for its role in supporting immune health related to histamine release. In a clinical study, tinospora was administered before re-exposure to an allergen and was found to stimulate peritoneal macrophages in a dose-dependent manner. A second study suggested that it could be helpful for allergic rhinitis.

The outlook for the future sees interest in and use of botanicals speeding up as consumers strive to “cover all the bases” when it comes to health and immunity. Consumers have made it clear that thy want to get more out of life through “proactive living,” so it makes sense that they are embracing the idea that healthy energy output also needs to be balanced by better sleep and stronger immunity.

With the patterns of daily living slowly getting back to pre-2020 status, the next areas of growth for botanicals will likely be aiding energy for socialization, or for inducing deeper relaxation and longer life. One such area of new growth in plant-based beverages are the non-alcoholic beverages hitting the market intended for the drinking occasion, such as those by Seedlip Drink Co. and Kin Social Tonics, Inc.

Perhaps product developers will also push the boundaries of what kind of night’s sleep we can achieve by seeking the botanicals that have traditionally been used to induce dreaming or spark lucid dreams. With thousands of years of traditional medicinals and tens of thousands of plant species to draw from, the possibilities are limitless.

Kerry Hughes, MS, principal for EthnoPharm, is an ethnobotanist, herbalist, and author with a 20-year record of success in natural product development. EthnoPharm specializes in innovative product formulation, education, and nexus-of-market opportunity identification. She can be reached at