Wellness Foods

Botanicals Increasingly Interesting to Food Industry

Botanicals -- nutraceutical ingredients from herbs, seeds, and fruits -- are increasingly interesting to the food industry serving health-conscious consumers demanding “nutritive-value added” food items.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D.

The list of potential antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, and anti-cancer compounds from the plant kingdom is staggering.

Botanicals have grabbed the attention of the food industry because consumers crave natural ways to enhance health through diet. "People are interested in condition-specific products that provide a benefit or solution, and there are many benefits to using botanicals in foods," says Matt Phillips, vice president marketing and sales for BI Nutraceuticals, Long Beach, Calif. "Botanicals historically have been used for therapeutic use, so for consumers taking control of their health, botanicals makes sense."

Most botanicals are simply whole nutritious plants; often those that have been on the menu in another form for years. "Consumers can only take so many pills," Phillips adds. "They're looking for alternative ways to consume botanicals. Foods naturally fill this gap."

According to the National Institutes of Health, "A botanical is a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal or therapeutic properties, flavor, and/or scent. Herbs are a subset of botanicals. Products made from botanicals used to maintain or improve health may be called herbal products, botanical products or phytomedicines."

Beyond Essentials

Studies on the health potential of promising compounds are increasing so fast that it's difficult to keep track of them. A recent article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition updated ratings of the total antioxidant potential for common foods. Toward the top of the list were a large variety of fruits and vegetables, including blackberries, strawberries, artichokes, cranberries, blueberries, grape juice and raspberries. Alongside these fruits were cloves, pecans, unsweetened chocolate, herbs and spices, coffee and walnuts.

Nature's Path Foods, Inc., Richmond, British Columbia, has been providing organic grains and cereal products since 1985. The recently introduced Optimum line of cereals and energy bars take advantage of boost in nutrition offered by such botanical ingredient leaders as: Pomegranate, ginger, blueberries, cranberries, cherries and flax seeds complete the whole grain nutrient package of both staple and snack offerings.

"As the leading manufacture of certified organic breakfast foods, snacks and pastas, we want to show how an active, sustainable (and organic) lifestyle can improve the overall health and well being of everyone," said Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing of Nature's Path.

Fruit-based Botanical Ingredients Still Got Juice
Processors are keeping up with science, adding hot botanical nutraceuticals to new products. Fruits and their extracts -- especially red and purple fruits such as açai, currants, pomegranate, tomatoes, cranberries and others -- are mainstreaming into the marketplace with greater regularity.

Cranberries, always popular, are becoming serious players in health food. "Cranberries are one of the highest antioxidant fruits and most widely known for their unique 'anti-adhesion' activity that protects the body from harmful bacteria causing urinary tract infections," says Doug Klaiber, general manager of Decas Botanical Synergies, Wareham, Mass.

This anti-adhesion activity is primarily due to a natural compound in the fruit called PACs. "According to the USDA Database for the Proanthocyanidin Content of Selected Foods, cranberry PACs contain a unique A-type structure, while most other plants contain only the more common B-type PACs. It is cranberry's A-type PACs that are responsible for the anti-adhesion mechanism of action," explains Klaiber.

In 2004, cranberry became the only fruit in the world to earn a health claim. The French government approved the claim that the North American cranberry can "help reduce the adhesion of certain E. coli bacteria to the urinary tract walls."

A Study in Color

The protective qualities of olives go beyond well-studied benefits of their monounsaturated oils. At the 2006 International New Foods Congress in Hamburg, Germany, Frutarom Switzerland Ltd. received 3rd prize for EFLA-943, a special olive leaf extract reported to lower blood pressure in clinical trials. While conformation of these findings by independent investigators on large population is needed, the preliminary results are promising.

In addition to the leaves, the "juice" of the olive resulting from pressing olives into oil is loaded with antioxidants. This water fraction of the olive has always been discarded as a nuisance, making up about 50 percent of the olive. At CreAgri Inc., Hayward, Calif., it's processed to yield hydroxytyrosol, a polyphenol that acts as a powerful antioxidant.

Another reason for the interest in botanicals is the overall lack of nutrition in the Western diet. "By adding botanicals to foods, consumers can obtain products with higher amounts of nutrients and antioxidants," says Thomas Walton, director of sales at Nature's Power Nutraceuticals Corp. (www.npnutra.com). According to research reported in the British Journal of Nutrition, modern storage and transportation methods, and even mild processing, significantly lowers phenolic and ascorbic acid content of fresh vegetables, decreasing antioxidant capacity proportionately.

Pomegranate potential is just beginning to be tapped. The juice has already proven to aid in the reduction of atherosclerotic plaque. Further studies indicate that pomegranate also may be protective against prostate cancer. This darling of the superfruit line-up is showing promise in a number of other health areas as well.

Mangosteen, a tropical evergreen native to Southeast Asia where its fruit is used to treat skin infections, wounds, and gastrointestinal problems, has a thick, anthocyanin-rich purple-brown hull covering its tangerine-sized fruit.

"The mangosteen, the 'Queen of Fruits,' revered for centuries for its nutritional attributes, is nature's most concentrated source of xanthones," says Aaron Garrity, president of Xango LLC, Lehi, Utah. Research suggests xanthones may act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agents. "The global sales surge of mangosteen products has sparked a rush as many companies race to manufacture and distribute products designed to capitalize on the category's popularity," continues Garrity.

Açai's sudden explosion on the superfruit scene has been well reported here. The Brazilian berry is a potent package of anthocyanins, omega fatty acids and other helpful compounds -- some still being identified. Researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany found the antioxidant capacities of purple açai to be an excellent defense against three different types of dangerous oxygen radicals when compared to other common European fruit and vegetable juices.

Anthocyanins provide antioxidant power to a variety of natural foods with a red hue, for example red cabbage, berries, plums, and apples. But anthocyanins are more than just natural antioxidants. They are also powerful anti-inflammatory agents that act like the drug ibuprofen, but without side effects. Açai is one of the richest natural sources of these dual-protection compounds.

Goji and Beyond

The Chinese wolfberry, known by its more popular and mysterious-sounding name, Tibetan goji berry, is the fruit of a species of boxthorns, related to the nightshade family of plants that include potato, tomato, eggplant and chili peppers. The multi-seeded berries, like most richly colored berries, are both nutritious and protective foods. A staple item in traditional Chinese medicine, they are said to enhance the immune system, protect the liver, improve circulation and aid vision among other effects.

The vision thing is more than folklore. Goji is one of the richest natural sources of zeaxanthin, a carotenoid in the family of beta-carotene. Carotenoids are pigments that act as antioxidants, protecting against cancer and other diseases. But zeaxanthin, unlike other carotenoids, is concentrates in the macula of the eye, where it helps to protect the aging eye against macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.

These are but a few of the beneficial "back yard" botanicals growing in popularity of late. There are many herbs, berries, fruits and roots with their own unique properties looming on the healthy ingredient horizon. Best of all, with the current harvest of exotic fruits and berries having "broken the ice," processors will find eager acceptance for the next crop of new and healthy nutraceuticals to enter the limelight.