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Buzz in the Press

Buzz in the Press

Organic Functional Ingredients:
Doubling Down on Health and Wellness

By Mark Crowell, CRC

In blackjack one of the most favorable situations is having the opportunity to double down, or doubling your bet after seeing your first two cards look promising. For organic food processors those two cards are organic products made with functional health ingredients. Of course, doubling down also increases your risk, so if you’re thinking of getting into the functional foods game you’ll want to play your cards wisely. Read on for the information you’ll need to increase your chances of getting a winning hand.

The Functional Foods Marketplace
In the past decade, demand for functional foods—foods that provide specific health benefits—has been driven by advances in food technology and new evidence-based science linking diet to disease and disease prevention. Functional foods hold out the promise of something almost unimaginable: that we can beneficially alter our most basic biological processes, enhance our quality of life and even extend the years we live, all by simply eating foods containing bioactive compounds.

Today’s consumers are looking for healthier options and because of this the size of the functional foods market has become enormous. According to Nutrition Business Journal, last year the market for functional foods in the United States was a staggering $26.6 billion dollars. That is about 25 percent larger than the entire market for natural and organic foods.

Organic consumers possess two characteristics that make them a particularly good target for functional foods. They are both more knowledgeable about the link between food and health and more proactive about acting on that knowledge. According to The Natural Marketing Institute’s 2006 Health and Wellness Trends Database, 84 percent of integrated organic food/beverage consumers (those who use organic food/beverages at least once a day) have also used functional foods/beverages.

Functional foods don’t stand alone within either the food or the health care arena, but straddle the divide between nonfunctional foods and medical drugs. Dietary supplements are closely related to functional foods and have played an important educational role for today’s consumers of functional foods (Figure 1). Consumers’ understanding of the benefits of nutrients like omega-3s and antioxidants are due in large part to earlier introductions of these products through supplements. Supplement manufacturers are expected to play an expanding role as ingredient suppliers, and in some cases competitors to food processors as growth in the supplement market slows over the next five years.

Sourcing for Function
Lately more and more organic functional ingredients are becoming available because of forward thinking ingredient suppliers who want to be a part of organic’s growth. But while the market may be expanding, many functional ingredients are still limited or not even available in organic form. For example, you are far more likely to find an organic tomato than you are to find an extract of organic lycopene, the bright red carotenoid pigment and potent antioxidant that gives tomato its color. There is no reason organic lycopene can’t be made; the market simply hasn’t induced many people to do it yet. (If you are looking, try Biological Lycopene, Lecce, Italy.)

Recent regulatory changes also could make it even more challenging to source many functional ingredients. It used to be that if you could not source an agricultural ingredient organically, then you were allowed to use up to 5 percent of a non-organic ingredient and still earn the USDA organic seal. Now, non-organic agricultural ingredients must be listed on 205.606 of the National List before they can be used. Currently this is a very limited list, so if there is an ingredient that is key to your formulation, you should either work with an ingredient specialist to see if it can be made organically or petition to have it added to 205.606.

Some Hot Functional Ingredients for Organics
Out of the functional ingredients that are currently available, we narrowed it down to a few of the hottest ingredients that are available organically.

The Alpha Omega. Omegas-3 and omega-6 lipids are considered essential fatty acids (EFAs) because the human body cannot produce them on its own and thus they must come from the diet.

One omega-3 that has become very well recognized is docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. This EFA is the major structural fat in the brain and retina, accounting for up to 97 percent of the omega-3 fatty acids in the brain and up to 93 percent of the omega-3 fatty acids in the retina. In addition, it’s one of the two EFAs that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows to make a health claim linking it to the reduction of heart disease. (For more on claims, see “The Claim Game,”). This year has been a breakout year for DHA in functional foods. Martek Biosciences announced the inclusion of life’sDHA, a sustainable and vegetarian source of DHA omega-3 made from algae, in its NuGo Organic line of nutrition bars and Horizon Organic introduced the first ever organic milk fortified with DHA.

Another omega-3 is alpha linolenic acid, ALA, which is found in many seeds, with particularly high levels in flax seed. ALA converts to DHA and limited amounts of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), another omega-3 found primarily in fish oil and the other EFA that is allowed to make the claim of lowering the risk of heart disease. Flax is also rich in omega-6s, protein and fiber as well as the phytonutrient lignan, which is believed to reduce certain types of cancer.

Lately flax has been seen in a variety of functional foods from tortillas and chips to cereals, breads, pastas and bars. Flax is available in several forms including flour and oil as well as whole flax seed. Processors should note though that in order to get the nutrients out of whole flax seeds the seed must be thoroughly chewed by the consumer, thus many processors are opting for ground flax which is more bioavailable. Processing can also negatively affect the bioavailability of some functional ingredients so make sure to ask your supplier how the nutrients are protected. Bruce Livingood, technical manager of Heartland Flax says the benefit of their milled flax is that the whole fully fatted seed is processed to leave all of the enzymes intact. “We avoid excessive heat and crushing during the milling process so our product is very stable. We give an un-refrigerated shelf life of 20 months,” he said.

Hemp is another ingredient that provides high levels of omegas. In fact, hemp is recognized by the World Health Organization as having what is considered to be an optimal three-to-one ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids. Hemp also contains the rare omega-6 EFA called gamma-linolenic acid, which is found in breast milk and is easier for the body to process, as well as stearidonic acid, said to offer about five times the potency of typical ALA omega-3s.

Many processors are already adding this to their products, including Nature’s Path, who recently released a line of products, ranging from hot cereal to brownies, that feature hemp as a functional ingredient.

“When we started hemp was seen some obscure ‘hippy’ product,” said Mike Fata, president of Manitoba Harvest. “Now sales of organic shelled hemp seed, oil and protein powder to manufacturers for the first half of 2007 are more than double the same period in 2006.”

Hemp is available as an oil, a protein-and-fiber-rich powder and as a seed nut, which has a flavor and texture comparable to pine nuts.

Another breakthrough in omegas is a heat stable omega oil blend. Many EFAs can be damaged by higher temperatures, but Marroquin International Organic Commodity Services recently helped certify a vegetarian 27 to 30 percent omega-3 oil that is suitable for any type cooking, baking, frying or marinating.

Lastly, fish oil is yet one more way to add omegas, especially EPA. Although fish oils are not available in certified organic just yet, they were recently approved to be used in the 5 percent of non-organic ingredients under 205.606 of the National List.

An-TEA-oxidants. According to the Natural Marketing Institute’s (NMI) 2006 Health and Wellness Trends Database, consumers most closely associate antioxidants with cancer prevention, immune support and heart health. In addition, these free radical fighters are also shown to have anti-aging properties.

Antioxidants can be found in everything from blueberries, cranberries and pomegranates to dark chocolate—but out of all the sources, one of the most well known and researched is green tea. Studies have linked a wide range of health benefits to green tea including lowering the risk of certain cancers and heart disease, as well as weight loss and protection against Alzheimer’s.

One way to measure the strength of an antioxidant is by its Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity or ORAC value. The ORAC value is a measure of the capacity of the product to subdue free radicals that damage cells. Green tea has a very high ORAC value, outranking blueberries and more than two times as powerful as pomegranates.

Red rooibos and white Fujian teas also have comparable ORAC values to that of green tea, and Darjeeling Makaibari extract boasts almost two times the ORAC value of green tea according to data from Moore Ingredients. Green tea, however, is the most popular because of its high consumer recognition and proven health benefits, according to Tony Moore, owner of Moore Ingredients. He also added that because it is much easier to extract polyphenols, the antioxidant rich phytonutrient in green tea, suppliers are able to offer green tea at lower prices and maintain higher availability. This hasn’t stopped processors from using other teas though. For instance, Luna has created a line of Tea Cakes, each featuring a different tea including rooibos, white and green.

Another tea growing in popularity is yerba mate, which is being used in functional beverages not only for its high antioxidant content, but also for its natural energy boost. “It has about 90 percent more antioxidant power than green tea according to studies from Brunswick Laboratories,” said Stefan Schachter, founder of EcoTeas. “On top of that it contains three different natural stimulants, including caffeine, theobromine and theophylline, which come together to stimulate the body in a more balanced way both mentally and physically.”

But what about that bitter taste of tea extracts? Many of the most powerful functional ingredients like tea extracts can have metallic, bitter or astringent flavors. Consumers are understandably unwilling to sacrifice palatability to eat healthy food, so it falls to flavorists and product developers to mask or minimize unwanted flavors while protecting the potency of a product’s functional ingredients.

David Karr, co-founder of Guayaki Yerba Maté, explains how he achieved both functionality and flavor. “Taste was the first priority when we developed our products. We spent two years working on the formulas to find the flavors that went well with yerba maté,” He said. “All of us knew yerba maté intimately, so we knew what flavors we were looking for, we just had to find them.”

The process is decidedly low tech, starting with whole foods. Rosehips are added to provide a sour note that helps mask yerba mate’s strong vegetal, herbal and grassy notes. Evaporated cane juice sweetens the beverage and helps mask the bitterness. Lemon juice and citric acid provide acidity and a mouth watering quality while ensuring the system maintains a pH of less than 4.4 to ensure microbial stability. Yerba maté extract is used to provide consistent strength to the product and manioc root (also used to make tapioca) provides mouthfeel.

The New Exotics. Exotic fruits that are grown under intense tropical sunshine produce high levels of reactive oxygen species during photosynthesis and concurrently produce strong antioxidant protection that promise big health benefits. And not only that, many of these are considered superfruits because of their high levels of other nutrients.

One such fruit is açaí, a berry from Brazil that is not only high in antioxidants, but also has high levels of omega 3s, fiber and a complete amino acid profile. With a taste profile that combines berry with notes of chocolate and red wine, it adds flavor as well as function and thus has been very popular in everything from bars to smoothies.

Newer to the U.S. organic market are goji berries, which have been used for 6,000 years by herbalists in China, Tibet and India to do everything from protect the liver and boost immune function to helping eyesight. Goji berries are rich in antioxidants, particularly carotenoids such as beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to decrease the risk of age-related macular degeneration. The flavor is slightly sweet and sour and in dried form, they resemble a raisin. As a whole fruit, they have been used in trail mixes, but now powdered forms are available as well, offering more uses.

Even fresher to the scene in the United States are sea buckthorn berries. Grown primarily in the Himalayas, they are rich in a variety of antioxidants including extraordinarily high levels of vitamins C and E, carotenoids, including beta-carotene, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and flavonoids, which have been shown to improve the immune system and cardiovascular and brain circulation. These berries, which have been likened to the flavor of passionfruit, are too acidic to eat fresh for most palates, but the juice is said to mix very well with other juices and the powdered version can be used in bars and other baked goods.

Other exotic fruits are being touted for their very high levels of vitamin C as well including acerola, a fruit from South America that boasts 10 to 50 times more vitamin C than oranges, and camu camu which even beats out acerola at 30 to 60 times the vitamin C of oranges. Even though synthetic vitamin C is allowed under the NOP, these naturally occurring vitamin C sources tend to be more attractive to the organic shopper.

So what is next? The success of some of these exotics may encourage some processors to try to find the next superfruit. If so, keep in mind that new exotics that are brought into the United States not only have to pass organic certification, but also need to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the FDA. Suppliers can either go through a formal FDA GRAS approval or can self-affirm their GRAS status by proving a substantial history of safe consumption as a food by a significant number of people. Although this is not an easy process, organic processors and suppliers who do take the time to do this could be part of the next big thing.

The Greens. There is one color that is associated with health food more than any other: green. Whether it’s veggies, algae or grass (wheat grass), these greens are working their way into many unsuspected places from smoothies to bars, making it more convenient and, to many people, more palatable than eating veggies. For instance, Sambazon’s Supergreens Revolution smoothie incorporates wheat grass, barley grass, oat grass, spirulina and chlorella and tastes mores like dessert than something “good for you.”

Algae such as spirulina has 10 times more concentrated beta carotene than carrots, is high in protein, amino acids, iron, vitamin B-12 and chlorophyll, a natural cleanser. RFI Ingredients also recently just certified the first organic version of another algae, chlorella. Studies demonstrate chlorella can aid the body in detoxification and immune response.

Wheat grass and alfalfa are also high in chlorophyll, and alfalfa has a proven cholesterol lowering effect in addition to high levels of beta-carotene. Barley grass contains a multitude of vitamins and minerals; its juice is seven times richer in vitamin C than an equivalent weight of oranges, five times richer in iron than spinach and 10 times richer in calcium than milk, is a significant source of vitamin B-12 and contains 15 times as much protein as an equivalent amount of milk.

Zeroing in on the Opportunity
Knowing what’s hot in functional ingredients is a good start, but what are the most common pitfalls in designing functional ingredients and how do you avoid them?

It’s still food. Barbara Katz of HealthFocus International, a marketing research firm, emphasizes that “functional or not, food, from a consumer perspective, continues to be food, not medicine. The majority of consumers have little or no intention of using food to cure illness. So if a food doesn’t taste like something they want to ingest, they won’t buy it.”

This perspective is supported by the Hartman Group’s, “Pulse Report on Functional Foods from a Consumer Perspective.” “Only if people are suffering from chronic or acute health problems do we find that Americans shift from ‘watching,’ i.e., ‘I’m watching my carbs,’ to eating explicitly functional foods.” According to The Hartman Group’s findings, “consumers don’t want to be marketed to via an illness so it’s best not to identify products too closely with a disease”.

Know your categories. You can’t just throw functional ingredients into anything. There are a number of foods that people just don’t want messed with. They are considered off-limits to fortification either because they are center of the plate staples like meat and eggs or they are indulgent treats like ice cream and chips. According to the Hartman Group, it comes down to what consumers are comfortable with and find believable.

Energy, digestive function, immune function, heart health, bone health and mental alertness are the top functional categories, according to Datamonitor. In addition, the Hartman Group’s report also says: “Dietary supplements continue to play a strong role in influencing which ingredients consumers are most comfortable with when it comes to understanding why a food or beverage would be enhanced with additional vitamins, minerals or nutrients. Consumers do have certain functional ingredients and food and beverage categories that they view as appropriate for functional consumption. Top ingredients include calcium, fiber, vitamins C, B, D and E, as well as soy protein, oat bran fiber, fish oil and to a lesser extent lycopene.” The top 10 categories for consumer acceptance of functional ingredients are (in descending order) food bars, juice or juice drinks, cereals, yogurt or yogurt based drinks, sports drinks, milk and bread, soups and teas.

Meet a consumer need. Create functional food and beverage products that meet a consumer need and target a specific audience. Consumers should prefer the product as a food rather than a dietary supplement. The product should fulfill a genuine dietary or health need such as the need for increased dietary fiber. It should be believable and conform to existing consumer beliefs.

The world of organic functional food and beverage will prove to be one of the most exciting and dynamic niches in the entire food industry over the next five years. Are you ready to place your bet?

Mark Crowell, CRC, is the founder and principal culinologist at CuliNex, a consultancy specializing in the development of organic and natural food products. Mark is the former director of product development for Olive Garden Restaurants and Starbucks Coffee Co. CuliNex specializes in assisting food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers and multi-unit foodservice operators achieve their growth goals by developing and bringing successful products to market. You can reach Mark at mark@culinex.biz.