The World of Botanical Ingredients Still Largely Untapped

The number of plant-derived chemicals that could yield health benefits is vast and largely undiscovered.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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Botanicals, the bioactive components of herbs, spices and other plants in either powdered, extracted or other forms, promise to take advantage of substances that have potential benefits while they do not qualify as nutrients.

Plant chemicals – phytochemicals – garner attention because they are viewed as untapped sources of energy and health benefits. There are only three energy-yielding macronutrients — proteins, fats, and carbohydrates — and only a handful of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, all of which are dietary essentials. But the number of plant-derived chemicals that could yield health benefits is vast and yet to be completely discovered.

While the number of plant-derived chemicals appears to be limitless and the mechanisms of action often complex, we tend to view their benefits in terms of a few fairly loose-fitting categories, such as energy boosters, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, anticancer agents, immunity boosters, cholesterol-lowering agents and, of more recent interest, cognitive enhancers. This leaves room for much-needed research and often unwarranted claims and testimonials. Given that background, where is the trend going?

Sometimes it's not a matter of discovering a new botanical, but looking at the same botanicals in different ways. Antioxidants are always marketable, and they can derive from different sources than we expect. For example, coffee berries are the part of the coffee that has been considered waste — the fruit. In roasting the bean or seed, the antioxidant-rich coffee fruit — called the "berry" — from which the bean is derived is discarded. The coffee berry is now being tapped for its antioxidant potential, which appears to be very impressive. The fruit is still a source of caffeine, which makes the source of its claim as an energy booster difficult to tease out. But expect to see more applications from this botanical in the future.

"The ability of plants to provide the myriad of benefits they do is truly miraculous," declares Robert Berman, senior international marketing manager for P.L. Thomas Inc., Morristown, N.J. "Virtually every ingredient we sell is of plant origin; whether it's the saffron in satiety-inducing Satiereal, the joint comfort and mobility supplied by the Boswellia serrate extract [branded as 5-Loxin], the skin hydration provided by the wheat phytoceramides [Lipowheat] or the stimulation of the body's own antioxidant defense system by the elements from melons and wheat embodied in GliSODin, we are taking advantage of Earth's bounty."

Berman further notes industry's continuing investigations into functional plants, adding, "We're always learning about new and different benefits that plants can provide."

Sometimes, a functional botanical can be from a more traditional plant. Oats, for example, always a dependable source of energy, are now a well-known as a source of soluble fiber that can lower cholesterol. Frutarom Ltd., Haifa Israel, is investing in the extract of oat leaves for their antioxidant potential based on studies in rats. But results of a recent, Frutarom-funded study, published in this month's issue of the Journal of Hypertension, suggests some of the cardioprotective nature of oats may lie with its effect in blood vessels.

The study involved 36 healthy adults over the age of 60 in a 24-week randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled dietary intervention using 1,500mg/day of encapsulated wild green oat extract (WGOE) vs. a placebo. It looked at blood in the brachial artery and in the middle cerebral artery. Compared with placebo, WGOE supplementation resulted in "sustained improvements in arterial vasodilator function in both systemic and cerebral circulations of healthy older adults."

We know olives are a source of beneficial monounsaturated fatty acids that can improve blood-lipid profiles. But olive leaf extract may be a powerful antioxidant, similar to the world's most popular botanical, green tea. It also has anti-inflammatory and potential anti-cancer properties, according to a study published in the current Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis.

Gum arabic, a natural gum made of hardened sap of two species of the acacia tree, consists of a mixture of glycoproteins and polysaccharides.

A soluble fiber, gum arabic was best known as a stabilizer in food processing. But regional herblore led to investigation into its effect on satiety. Research published last month in Nutrition Journal looked at the effects of gum arabic on body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage in healthy adult females. A test group of 60 volunteers was given 30g/day of gum arabic for six weeks, while a placebo group was given 1g/day of pectin for the same period of time. The study group showed significant reduction in BMI and body fat percentage.

Whether from looking at familiar plants in a new way, looking at obscure plants and plants known only to local herbal practitioners (think hoodia, rooibos, lo han guo and similar trendy botanicals of recent years) or revisiting some archival knowledge of plantlore past, modern science is uncovering the immense untapped health potential in botanical sources.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.

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