Better Living Through Food Chemistry

Are you familiar with guarana, yerba maté and choline? They and other performance-enhancing ingredients are providing quite a boost - for consumers and for sales of certain foods and beverages.

By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

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More and more consumers are eating healthily, trying to be physically active and maintaining a sensible lifestyle - three criteria experts advocate for achieving health. Many consumers are taking things a step further: looking not only for health but for better performance in a number of areas.

Whether it's mental acuity, increased immunity, physical performance or just a quick energy boost, consumers believe the solution can come from foods and especially beverages. Consumers increasingly understand that certain ingredients and nutrients can enhance physiological performance.


Performance-enhancement ingredients tend to be expensive, so it is important to know how to protect and maximize utilization of your bioactive ingredient inventory.

Clarify with the R&D group if the phytochemical has one or more of the following functional issues:
  • Does the ingredient alter viscosity? If so, how does one counter it without changing the product or the ingredient functionality?

  • Is it pH sensitive, and does change in pH cause it to change color or flavor? If so, what is the ideal pH range?

  • Is it sensitive to humidity?

  • Will it react adversely with the other ingredients of the formulation - during processing or later, during storage?

  • Does the ingredient need an emulsifier or stabilizer for its functionality and if so, does the order of ingredient addition matter to the quality of the finished product?

  • Does the ingredient have a strong flavor or does it have the tendency to develop a strong undesirable flavor that can be difficult to mask?

  • What is the shelf life of the ingredient - opened and unopened? Is it photosensitive?
Food manufacturers, often taking a cue from sports nutrition pioneers, are creating healthful foods that are not just for athletes. Some processors are reinventing traditional foodstuffs as performance enhancers on the basis of science-supported benefits of their intrinsic components or added ingredients.

Generally plant-derived, these phytochemicals may be complex botanical extracts or herbal extracts or further purified single compound nutrients such as vitamins, amino acids and fatty acids.

Bioactive phytochemicals tend to have pronounced taste and flavor — not all of which are easily accepted by mainstream consumers. Ingredient suppliers have done a good job of identifying these performance enhancing ingredients and educating R&D and marketing personnel about their benefits. More recent work has focused on creating the appropriate technologies for protecting and delivering the potency of these ingredients in a palatable form.

Persuasive and pervasive consumer education by multinationals has propelled sports drinks into the mainstream. As people consume Full Throttle (from Coca-Cola), Sobe Powerline (PepsiCo) and Lucozade (GlaxoSmithKline), they also become familiar with such ingredients as taurine, ginseng, yerba maté and guarana. Once regarded as extreme or even dangerous to one's health, these products now have an edge over soft drinks, which increasingly are being viewed as hazardous to one's health.

While the beverage industry pioneered the introduction of a number of performance enhancers, they remain absent from the nutrition bar and meal replacement food segments. A number of formulation challenges prevent ingredients from crossing over among these categories. In general, ingredients with wide application in beverages have not easily transferred into solid foods. Ingredients that have been successful in low-water activity food systems such as bars and cereals have not been as popular in beverage applications.

The energy crisis

Just as convenience ranks high in consumer polls for food preferences, "lack of energy" is emerging as one of their top health concerns.

The American consumer energy crisis apparently is becoming serious, compelling some 15 million annual visits to the doctor, according to a recent Harvard Medical School report. Major concerns are maintaining energy and preventing lack of energy. Energy priorities are not the same across age groups - young adults seek an energy boost out of concerns about daily performance; athletes and older adults seek energy to help extend their quality of life and to avoid certain chronic diseases.

Energy seekers, according to Keith Parle, director of functional food sales and strategic development at Kerry Group (, Kansas City, Kan., fall into two types. One group consists of primarily young folks who seek vitality and an energy buzz from Red Bull energy drink and Frappuccino-type products. The second group are those interested in a more sustained energy level. Seasoned consumers and athletes fall into this category, and they actively replace sugar and simple carbohydrates with high fiber, protein and complex carbohydrates for greater satiety and sustained energy release.

The food industry's response is a variety of beverages and energy bars - many with edgy names that promise anything from an extreme burst of energy (such as Airforce Energize Soda from Ardea Beverages, Hopkins, Minn.,) to more sensible and sustained energy (Eat Well Be Well bars from the company of the same name in Hood River, Ore.).

The formulator's ingredient palette for quick energy boosts has taurine, caffeine, guarana, ginseng, theobromine (from chocolate) and theophylline (from tea). For sustained release of energy, they reach out to protein, high-fiber ingredients and complex carbohydrates and describe the results as "slow burn," "low glycemic index," or even "complex carbohydrate-rich."

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