Today’s consumers expect a lot from the food that they buy. Not only do they want food that tastes delicious, but more consumers than ever want to ensure that the food that they eat will support and improve their health. This health-conscious consumer behavior is driving major shifts across the food industry, as food producers and manufacturers of all sizes explore ways to enhance the health value of their products.
In order to boost the health benefits that their foods offer, many manufacturers are turning to an increasingly popular player on the food ingredient scene: botanicals. Defined by the National Institutes of Health as “a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal or therapeutic properties, flavor, and/or scent,” botanicals have a long history of use in the food industry. Added to foods in concentrated extract form, they can act as colorants, thickeners, or preservatives, in addition to bringing their unique flavors to the final food product.
However, the surging popularity that botanicals have enjoyed as food ingredients in recent years is definitely due to their reputed health benefits: as reported in the online magazine Food Processing, there are so many studies on the health potential of promising botanical compounds that it’s difficult to keep up with all of them. In addition, because they are from natural plant sources, botanicals allow manufacturers to meet clean label consumer demands for products that are free from artificial ingredients. As a result, a wide range of botanicals are popping up in applications across the food industry, ranging from beverages to snacks. Here is a look at nine of the most popular botanicals that deliver functionality and health benefits, as well as exciting tastes and flavors.
One of the best-known botanicals used in functional foods, ginger is among the healthiest plants on the planet. Loaded with nutrients and bioactive compounds, ginger can help to treat nausea, reduce muscle pain, improve heart disease risk factors, and treat chronic indigestion, among many other health benefits. While some people take advantage of ginger’s healthful properties by consuming ginger supplements, most others prefer to enjoy it in a delicious array of foods, ranging from spicy curries to sweet baked goods.
This brightly colored botanical has been showing up in all kinds of foods and beverages over the last few years (turmeric latte, anyone?). The spice that gives curry its distinctive yellow color, turmeric contains important medicinal compounds called curcuminoids, which have powerful anti-inflammatory effects and act as very strong antioxidants.
References to medicines derived from the elder tree date as far back as the fifth century. Today, elderberries are known to be an excellent source of vitamin C and phenolic acids, and to be rich in phytonutrients that can help to treat common ailments such as colds, cough, and nasal congestion. They also offer a pleasantly tart flavor that goes well with desserts, beverages, and syrups.
4. Green Tea
Widely consumed as a beverage and used in extract form in a wide variety of foods, green tea has long been known as a potent antioxidant that can help to reduce inflammation, prevent cell damage, and promote anti-aging. From a food manufacturer’s perspective, green tea is useful because it works in both sweet and savory applications.
More than just an herb that you add to your pasta sauce, rosemary can help to improve your memory and mood, as well as reduce your risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It’s also rich in a range of important vitamins. Food manufacturers also like rosemary because it can act as a natural anti-bacterial agent, helping to preserve and extend the shelf life of products like pepperoni.
Anthocyanins are natural antioxidants and powerful anti-inflammatory agents. You can think of them as a kind of natural version of the drug ibuprofen. Açai is one of the richest natural sources of these all-important compounds, so it’s hardly surprising that this Brazilian berry consistently ranks highly on lists of the top superfoods.
A staple item in traditional Chinese medicine, multi-seeded goji berries help to enhance the immune system, protect the liver, boost circulation, and preserve vision by protecting aging eyes against macular degeneration. Interestingly, the goji berry is from the nightshade family of plants, which also includes potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants.
You may have noticed that popular food products like energy drinks often include ginseng. The reason is because this slow-growing root plant is known for its power to boost brain function and increase energy levels. While people in North America typically consume ginseng in beverage form, it also makes a delicious addition to soups and stir-fry dishes.
Rich in nutrients, mint can help to relieve indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as improve brain function, among its many benefits. Always a popular ingredient in the food industry, mint has become even more widely used in recent years, as its versatility makes it easy to add to a large variety of foods.