Color / Flavors / Fortifications and Minerals / Ingredient Trends / R&D / R&D Trends

Amplifying Flavors Using Spices, Herbs and Botanical Ingredients

As international and global cuisines become more prevalent, they sky's the limit on these food enhancements, and product developers are reaping the benefits.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Adding herbs, spices and botanicals to food and beverage products amplifies flavor, helps replace sodium, sugar, artificial colors and flavors and address some health issues. Every year, trendy new combinations of spices and herbs come to the forefront. Masala, cardamom, hatch chile, doenjang and turmeric are gaining at supermarkets today, as are green and herbal, hot and spicy and even floral flavors.

The growing Asian and Hispanic populations in the U.S. have introduced wildly popular flavors into the American diet, many becoming mainstays in kitchens and on menus, notes Ann Roberts, vice president of NPD Group's ( SupplyTrack service.

Product developers and chefs know they can change the dynamics of a new formulation just by adding a pinch of spice, a sprinkle of herbs and a few dashes of creativity. Different choices and combinations can completely transform chicken, for example, from one type of cuisine with a certain flavor complex and aromas to another, just by swapping the herbs and spices.

Use of ethnic condiments will continue to grow with the great demand from millennials, who always want something new. "Some of the flavors we're watching are harissa [hot, often smoked, chili peppers], ras el hanout [a warm Morrocan spice blend] and anything from the Philippines," says Judson McLester, executive chef and ingredient sales manager at McIlhenny Co. (, the Avery Island, La.-based maker of Tabasco products. "The next big trend in my mind is fermented foods − the use of herbs and spices here is limitless and helps drive the flavor. Also, plant-based cocktails/mocktails that offer up nutritional and medicinal properties."

Herbs, spices and seasonings also can help with ongoing efforts to reduce sodium and even sugar in processed products. Formulators are replacing salt in foods with acidic lemon juice, vinegar and an abundance of herbs, spices and seasoning blends, McLester notes. "All of these contain some amount of naturally occurring sodium. Some of the best flavorful herbs used to replace sodium would be basil, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, to name a few. The sky’s the limit on spice, since most are aromatic and pungent. I like chili powder and cinnamon."

Asenzya PeppersToday, it's not always about finding alternatives to salt and sugar, but about using real ingredients at the right amount for their functionality. "Use of spices and herbs will definitely increase in scope to drive flavor as we look to reduce added salt and sugars but still deliver a good tasting product," adds Dax Schaefer, executive chef and director of culinary innovation at functional ingredient/seasoning provider Asenzya (, Oak Creek, Wis. His customers are enhancing with natural flavors that impart umami.

Changing seasons and regions

"We're looking at deeper Asian profiles such as Korean and Vietnamese and Caribbean profiles," Schaefer continues. However, he cautions: "People want as authentic and traditional a flavor as possible.

African, Middle Eastern and Latin American cuisines are surfacing, observes Lacey Eckert, market development specialist at Kalsec Inc. (, Kalamazoo, Mich. "These cuisines have spicy flavor elements and often combine heat with other seasonings," she says, such as peppers with warm spices such as cardamom and nutmeg or black pepper and cumin, sometimes cilantro. Latin American flavors can bring together heat with garlic and onion, cumin and coriander, or strong herbal flavors of parsley and cilantro in the form of chimichurri. Kalsec also monitors specific pepper varietals as consumers look for new and different sources of heat, she says.

"Mexican food was the most popular choice for hot and spicy cuisine in the last year. It's also starting to be recognized as more than just tacos and tortillas," she adds. Authentic Mexican food incorporates many flavors, and Kalsec offers extracts from specific peppers from the region – guajillo, ancho and pasilla, among others.

Japanese-inspired cuisine, which uses ponzu, miso, mirin, sesame oil and plum vinegar, is "moving from restaurant menus to mainstream American pantries," says Whole Foods Market. As food companies add more variety in entrees, snacks and frozen vegetables, savory Japanese influences are showing up in stores. Japanese flavors and spices also will impact breakfast and dessert, Whole Foods predicts.

There are new items like mochi (Japanese rice cakes) showing up in flavors such as green tea and matcha, black sesame and pickled plum. Frito-Lay product developers even launched a limited-time Doritos wasabi flavor in October.

McCormick & Co. (, Sparks, Md., says Caribbean and Peruvian dishes are trending, and those are dependent upon allspice, cumin, thyme, smoked paprika, oregano and red pepper. Because consumers use more of its products today, the company says it's offering 24 classic McCormick spices, herbs and seasoning blends in larger sizes.

Spices and herbs can be changed as the seasons change, with heartier fare in the colder months, and lighter, cleaner flavors in spring and summer. "The packaged food industry is somewhat driven by seasonal flavors," Eckert. "Pumpkin spice has become a fall staple. Seasonal flavors are generally apparent in limited-time-only products. But customers need to have these seasonally related products in hand to formulate up to more than a year in advance."

And with Christmas approaching, peppermint will begin appearing in everything from candy canes to Hershey's Kisses to Coffee-Mate Peppermint Mocha creamer.

Harvesting botanicals

Botanicals such as chamomile, ginseng, jasmine and lavender are getting a second look from product developers, as the food and drink industry welcomes more clean-label, plant-based products. Used as additives, most of these substances are still not legally defined by the FDA, but have Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status.

"Rosemary is an example," Schaefer says. "Meat companies use it as an all-natural, anti-bacterial agent in products like pepperoni. And turmeric has medicinal-like qualities as an anti-inflammatory ingredient."

Eckert echoes the assessment. "Functional foods are trending, as more consumers look at what they eat in terms of how it affects their personal health. Ginger and turmeric are two of the better known and most popular botanicals used for functional foods."

Botanical extracts like ginseng, guarana and chicory have been used in medicinal applications for ages to treat issues from stomach upsets to allergies and skin irritations to arthritis, headaches, sore throats and even more serious conditions.

At September's Supply Side West trade show, Natreon ( debuted a line of sports nutrition drinks based on botanicals. The Natreon One line offers four formulations:

  • Sensoril (for focus) -- a standardized aqueous botanical extract of ashwagandha roots and leaves, which helps increase resistance to fatigue and boosts energy levels, supports healthy joints and mood, helps enhance focus and mental stamina and supports sleep and stress reduction.
  • PrimaVie (for energy) --Himalayan Shilajit can improve performance by boosting mitochondrial energy, and increasing nitric oxide to stimulate blood flow, increases the rate of muscle recovery by boosting testosterone levels, and promotes joint health and strength by supporting natural collagen synthesis.
  • Capros (for endurance) -- a heart-healthy superfruit extract that boosts nitric oxide levels and supports healthy blood flow, significantly reduces hsCRP (which leads to decreased inflammation and better recovery) and acts as a super-antioxidant to protect the body against oxidative stress.
  • AuyFlex (for recovery) -- a joint-supporting superfruit extract, reduces inflammation and helps with recovery, improves knee and overall joint health and functional capacity, and acts as a xanthine oxidase inhibitor which promotes blood vessel and joint health.

Ashwagandha has been featured at shows like Supply Side West and March's Natural Products Expo West. Also known as Indian ginseng, the orange-red berries have some food and beverage applications, but it's the roots that have been used for centuries in Indian herbal medicine.

BI Nutra Green Tea powder site

"Ayurvedic [healing] spices are not only gaining traction for their rich flavors, but also for their contribution to overall health," says Rikka Cornelia, product manager at BI Nutraceuticals (, a Long Beach, Calif., plant ingredients manufacturer. "Botanicals, herbs and spices not only play more of a role in healthy product developments, they're playing the main role," she claims.

Another set of botanicals recently gaining mainstream popularity is adaptogens. "Adaptogenic botanicals, such as ashwagandha, ginseng and maca [a plant native to Peru], enable the body to adapt to stress, mentally and physically. Plant-based ingredients are also sought after for their clean-label appeal," Cornelia adds.

Another trending functional ingredient, according to Cornelia, is guayusa powder extract, which comes from the leaves of the holly tree, Ilex Guayusa, and contains high amounts of caffeine. Brewed into a tea, the powder is said to have twice the antioxidants of green tea. Sourcing exotic botanicals, spices and herbs from more than 40 countries, BI Nutraceuticals also sees interest in turmeric powder to replace certain FD&C colors.

No doubt, herbs, spices and botanicals will continue to be popular ingredient choices in future food & beverage developments as new and different flavor experiences grow, McLester sums up. "Whatever the cuisine, the use of herbs and spices is really borderless. They can be incorporated into almost anything."