The Basics of Phytochemicals

Imagine thousands of compounds in foods and every one of them good for you. Of course, instead of imagining you could also read this brief overview on these helpful chemical compounds from plants.

By Kathryn Trim

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The nearly 10,000 known phytochemicals are divided into a number of classes, subclasses and sub-subclasses. This can be confusing; dictionaries of known phytochemicals take up about 1,000 pages and cost hundreds of dollars.

For the most part, the several main classes of functional compounds commonly focused on in processing include carotenoids, phytosterols, aromatics (including phenols, stilbenes and lignans), flavonoids (such as flavonols and isoflavones), cyonates (ie., anthocyanins) and terpenes (limonoids).

The alphabet soup of these compounds may be dizzying but so is the growing recognition of their benefits to health. Thousands of studies suggest phytochemicals may help our bodies fight against cancer, cardiovascular disease, improve brain function, control inflammation, impact women’s health issues and more.

Phytosterols

Also known as plant sterols, these top the list of popular phytos, especially for their proven cardioprotective properties. Phytosterols can be absorbed in the body in place of cholesterol. Studies show diets with high levels of these cholesterol analogs can lead to an 8 to 12 percent lower overall cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol. These changes usually can be detected in as little as two to three weeks after incorporation into the diet.

NOTE TO OPERATIONS

Phytosterols are not naturally water soluble. However, Corowise, by Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. (www.cargill.com), as well as others such as Vegepure by Cognis (www.cognis.com), Cincinnati, Ohio, are water dispersible.

As one of the few phytos actually given the “green light” by the FDA, direct claims such as “lowers cholesterol and LDL levels” and “may reduce the risk heart disease” can be attributed to a phytosterol-containing product as long at it meets FDA guidelines.

Phytosterols are appearing in a number of products, including beverages, Orowheat breads, Nature Valley’s Healthy Heart trail bars, Rice Dream Heart Wise rice drink, Take Control spread and others. “Consumers are responding well to products with added sterols,” says Ray Crockett, director of communications for Minute Maid (www.minutemaid.com), Atlanta, noting the company’s Heart Wise Orange Juice with Corowise plant sterols is one of its top sellers. “Many people facing health issues heard plant sterols can help and so look for our product.”

Flavonoids

Found in everything from berries and broccoli to tea and chocolate, flavonoids are powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals and may fight off cancer, heart disease, inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

One of the hottest flavonoids in food and beverage right now ironically is found in a plant that has been revered for its preventative power in Asian cultures for centuries – green tea. Besides its antioxidant properties, it also has been shown to lower blood sugar and cholesterol and even promote weight loss; increasing energy and thermogenesis and retarding adipose (fat) cell growth and fat absorption in the intestine.

NOTE TO OPERATIONS

Catechins are stable under conditions typical to beverage manufacturing. DSM suggests the addition of antioxidants (for example ascorbic acid) to improve stability and shelf-life in some food and beverage products.

One of the most well-studied phytochemicals in this good-for-you-brew is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). DSM Nutrition Products (www.nutraaccess.com), Parsippany, N.J., produces Teavigo, an EGCG isolate for use in foods and beverages.

ECGC can be effective on its own, but Euromed USA (www.euromedusa.com), Pittsburgh, takes a combination approach with its eMed-GTE, a combination of phenolics and catechins, including EGCG. “Our thought is to keep it close to nature, preserve the profile of the catechins naturally in green tea. There are chemicals in tea that are complimentary and create a synergistic effect,” explains Guy Woodman, director of sales. Processors also are synergizing phytochemicals by carefully mixing their natural sources.

Jasper’s Wild Blue Berry Green Tea combines Euromed’s eMed-GTE with antioxidants in green tea plus anthocyanidins in blueberry extract. The long-chain anthocyanidins allow for a more sustained release that preserves the other antioxidants.

Isoflavones

Isoflavones crown the pyramid of phytos that is the flavonoid class. (Flavonoids may be the largest category of phytochemicals, laying claim to most of the ones commonly studied – and heard of.) Isoflavone phytoestrogens from soy could be the most researched phytochemical in the world, with hundreds of published studies to date. Dozens of studies in the 1990s alone focused on the possible easing of menopause symptoms.

Moreover, soy isoflavones are being examined for possible benefits to: heart health, cancer, PMS, osteoporosis, improved cognition, protection from UV damage and aging, and even improved sleep. Soy isoflavones are a popular ingredient to the food and beverage industry, with the global isoflavone market being valued at around $100 billion.

Soylife isoflavones from Acatris Inc. (www.acatris.com), Minneapolis, are added to several products, including Arrowhead Mills’ Perfect Harvest Cereal and Flour, Organic Plus Oatmeal, Nature’s Path Foods Inc.’s Organic Soy Plus Cereal and Organic Optimum Power Waffles and Mama Rosie’s Spinach and Cheese Ravioli/Manicotti. Acatris incorporates the complete spectrum of natural soy compounds, including 40 additional supporting nutrients that may help increase efficacy. SoyLife is stable for baking and extrusion.

The Optimum cereal line by Richmond, British Columbia-based Nature’s Path has seen dramatic results since adding a wide range of nutrients, including soy isoflavones to its products.

“The Optimum line has really paid off,” says Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing. “It went from push to pull – from pushing the product, to customers asking for the product and stores calling us. Consumers are ready for this type of food – they’re educated and seeking better health.”

Aromatics

ActiVin, from San Joaquin Valley Concentrates
ActiVin, available to processors as a water-soluble powder, gives food and beverage products a resveratrol boost.

Since the discovery in red wine of the powerful stilbene aromatic resveratrol, a glass of vino has gone from being an indulgence to something many experts recommend for better health.

Resveratrol has been linked with a lengthy list of benefits, including fighting off cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis. It also could reduce cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, and it is known to act as an anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal agent.

Grape skin extracts such as those in OxyPhyte, by RFI Ingredients (www.rfiingredients.com), Blauvelt, N.Y., offer concentrates standardized and stabilized for use in a variety of foods and beverages. Resveratrol is also found in about 70 other species of plants, including peanuts and mulberries.

Resveratrol is suddenly getting noticed by processors, who are incorporating it into formulations. One example, Kashi, uses ActiVin, by San Joaquin Valley Concentrates (www.activin.com), Fresno, Calif. ActiVin is a GRAS water-soluble powder that can be added to the liquid portion of a food or beverage, or as a powder for dry-blending. It’s stable to heat, especially processes used in baking. Scores of studies suggest ActiVin helps heart, eye and joint health, among other benefits.

Another aromatic polyphenol finding increasing use in food applications is the antioxidant rosmarinic acid, from extracts of the rosemary plant. The compound also is a potent antimicrobial. Vitiva (www.vitiva.si), Markovci, Slovenia, makes AquaROX, a water-soluble rosmarinic acid.

Anthocyanins

Found in red- and purple-colored fruits and veggies such as berries and red cabbage, anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants. Anthocyanins have been shown to help promote healthy brain function and urinary tract health, balance blood sugar levels and improve vision, cardiovascular health and skin.

Additionally, these phytos (sometimes classed with flavonoids) are anti-angiogenic: they have the ability to reduce unwanted growth of blood vessels which feed tumor formation and may lead to varicose veins.

Decas Botanical Synergies offers no fewer than seven different cranberry-based ingredients for processors looking to boost their products' antioxidant levels.

OptiBerry, produced by InterHealth (www.interhealthusa.com), Benicia, Calif., is an antioxidant cocktail combining blueberry, strawberry, cranberry, wild bilberry, elderberry and raspberry extracts. Although it’s just emerging in the U.S. food and beverage industry, it is already in use in beverages in Japan.

Cranberries contains unique anthocyanidins called “A-linked Proanthocyanidins (PAC). “A-link PACs have anti-adhesion and antioxidant properties,” says Dan Souza, marketing manager of Decas Botanical Synergies (www.decasbotanical.com), Wareham, Mass. “Cranberry A-Type PACs help support urinary tract, gastrointestinal and oral health by inhibiting bacteria from adhering to cell walls. Many fruits and vegetables contain PACs, however only the cranberry A-type PACs have been shown to provide both anti-adhesion and antioxidant properties.”

Carotenoids

Research has helped us “see” the vital role that two key carotenoids – lutein and its lesser known partner, zeaxanthin – play in eye health. These cousins of vitamin A, which make up the pigment in the macula of the eye, have been shown to help prevent cataracts as well as age-related macular degeneration. Acting as “sunglasses” for the macula, their main job is to filter out harmful blue light.

Lutein has been embraced by the industry and is included in meal replacement drinks, as well as Sunsweet prune juice.

Zeaxanthin, on the other hand, is a popular supplement yet to make a big transition into foods and beverages. But it’s a phyto to watch. It exists in the macula at double the rate of the superstar lutein. Kemin Health Products (www.kemin.com), Des Moines, Iowa, provides both lutein and zeaxanthin from marigolds.

To meet the expected demand, several companies have created products that can easily be added to a range of food and beverages. BI Nutraceuticals (www.botanicals.com), Long Beach, Calif., also produces an all-natural version of zeaxanthin from marigolds, while DSM produces Optisharp, a pure, synthetic zeaxanthin identical in composition to that found in nature. DSM’s lutein and zeaxanthin are used in products from dressings and soy spreads to egg substitutes.

NOTE TO OPERATIONS

Carotenoids are not naturally water-soluble, so many companies rely on microencapsulation to allow for water dispersion.

In terms of processing, all carotenoids are sensitive to heat, says Robert Berman, senior marketing manager of new business development at DSM. “Our forms can be used with heat because we add antioxidants to protect the lutein and zeaxanthin, and can be used in beverages because we add ascorbic acid to protect them. We have versions soluble in both water and oil. Foods that could benefit from inclusion of these carotenoids include baked goods, cereals, beverages, spreads and dressings, dairy products, desserts, soups and juices.”

Other companies have products that combine the two carotenoids such as Xenagold, by Cognis (www.cognis.com), Cincinnati.

Another popular carotenoid, lycopene, had enough research success to lead to use in a number of products. It’s a well-established heart-health additive, but received early attention for its protective properties against cancer (especially prostate).

A 2005 study revealed over half of Americans recognize lycopene, connecting it with positive effect for heart disease and cancer prevention.

LycoRed Inc. (www.lycored.com), Fairfield, N.J., is a pioneer of naturally derived lycopene, beginning with the development of the high-lycopene species of tomato in Israel two decades ago. The company’s Lyco-Mato and Tomat-O-Red products are used in everything from cereal, beverages and dairy drinks to condiments and meat alternatives by processors and distributors such as Kashi, Bolthouse Farms and Trader Joe's.

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