The Chinese have a botanicals-for-health culture that was advanced 5,000 years ago. Europe's Otzi the Ice Man was carrying a packet of curative plants when he froze in a crevasse equally long ago. And scores of millennia earlier, cave people in the Middle East were known to use local plant products for medicinal purposes.
So why, until recently, were botanical applications for ailments or better performance relegated to the healthcare industry fringe, fated to be advertised by smiling suburbanites on late-night TV here in the U.S.?
"Concepts such as natural solutions instead of pharmaceutical ones were always bigger in Asia and Europe than the U.S.," purports Laurent Leduc, vice president of health for Frutarom North America (www.frutarom.com), North Bergen, N.J. "I think this is because Americans are more inclined toward thinking in terms of instant gratification.
"Yet with natural solutions the effects can take several weeks to happen," he continues. "I think this is why botanicals for health are so perfectly suited to food and beverage applications, things consumers don't mind adding as part of a daily, long-term regimen."
The trope of aging baby boomers driving the functional foods trend gets verification when we see the types of health issues spotlighted in the sudden American interest in botanicals. Leduc points to the attention being paid so-called "nutracosmetic" ingredients, or cosmeceuticals, as an example of a coming sea change in how domestic consumers perceive what nature can offer.
"Based on a passion for flavor and health that botanicals can satisfy, we're trying to help customers by developing products that are beneficial, taste great and in many instances carry a ‘beauty from within' capacity," Leduc explains. "That's just the beginning of what botanicals can do; there are topics that don't usually get covered that can bring consumers to botanical solutions more readily," he adds.
Frutarom has been a leader in sometimes veering off the usual nutraceutical path of heart health and cancer protection in favor of more atypical issues. One example is its Go Less (www.go-less.com) bladder health supplement, made from pumpkin seed EFLA and soy germ isoflavones. The EFLA targets anabolic receptors and helps strengthen the weakened pelvic floor muscles and stuctures of the urinary tract associated with incontinence. Meanwhile the soy isoflavones help mitigate incontinence associated with decreased production of estrogen in post-menopausal women and resulting from benign enlarged prostate in men.
Hair loss, too, landed on Frutarom's radar, leading to the development of its LinumLife Extra, a purified extract designed to counter thinning of hair in men and women. Based on lignin compounds called secoisolariciresinol and derived from flax, LinumLife Extra has proven effective in controlled studies.
Another innovative use of botanicals for health: oral probiotics for immunity and oral hygiene. Frutarom developed its Bliss K12 ingredient as the world's first oral probiotic. Studies demonstrate Bliss K12 can neutralize the oral bacteria that produce halitosis, sore throats, ear infections and, in some cases, colds and flu.
Until Bliss K12, probiotic benefits were thought of for their digestive health benefits. But by creating a natural defense against immune imbalance orally, the benefit extends throughout the rest of the digestive system. "Bliss K12 is about to attain GRAS status which will open the door for food applications," Leduc notes. "With GRAS status, we expect more products — for example, yogurts and ice cream — to feature BLIS probiotics."
That other "Baby Boomer" scourge, stress, is becoming addressed as an offshoot of the energy boom. "Some stress is good for us; it makes us accomplish goals. It can drive us to achieve a sales quota, write a report and more," says Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president of ingredient manufacturer Blue California (www.bluecal-ingredients.com), Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. "Too much stress, however, can affect our health. It can make us overeat, sleep poorly and may disrupt our relationships and endanger our lives when we drink, use drugs or do other harmful things in our attempts to reduce or cope with stress."
McCollum recognizes the tremendous value in finding a botanical ingredient that could effectively reduce stress safely and without harmful side effects. "L-theanine, an amino acid from green tea, demonstrates the qualities of such an ingredient," she says. "It increases the production of alpha waves in the brain, responsible for inducing a relaxed state of mind, without drowsiness. L-theanine produces a mild relaxing effect, it calms you, relaxes you and can help you concentrate and focus on a task, thus, it can in fact make you more productive."
Blue California uses a proprietary manufacturing method to produce L-TeaActive, an L-theanine that is suitable for food and beverage applications. "Reducing stress can help our immune system, can help us sleep better and improve our sense of well-being," she says. "Clinical studies have shown that 250 mg of L-theanine per day can effectively reduce stress. Even amounts as low as 100 mg/day can be sufficient to put you in a path to better health."