Eurotrends: The World of Natural Ingredients

By Joerg Gruenwald | April 1, 2009

The trend away from artificial ingredients and toward exotic ingredients has fueled demand for natural ingredients.

The World of Natural Ingredients

The trend away from artificial ingredients and toward exotic ingredients has fueled demand for natural ingredients.

By Joerg Gruenwald

Consumers have been moving away from artificial ingredients in food and drinks for quite some time. In fact, the “E” numbers on product labels in Europe are becoming more and more of a “keep away” sign for many. Consumers suspect artificial additives of being responsible for several growing health concerns, ranging from allergies to intestinal problems to cancer to behavioral changes, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) in children. The so-called “Southamptom Six,” a half-dozen artificial colors that have been linked to hyperactivity in children in a recent study, is perhaps the best-known example of this trend.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly curious about exotic and ethnic taste experiences beyond the familiar Italian or Mexican food, and they are open to finding unexpected taste variations in new categories. Chili-flavored chocolate, exotically new two years ago, is almost “old hat” by now. Nowadays, we find chili-tangerine flavored chocolate on supermarket shelves, or even chocolate flavored with Indian spices.

These two trends, away from artificial ingredients and toward exotic tastes, are currently driving the market for natural ingredients, particularly natural colors and flavors. Undeniably, many natural colorings and flavorings have benefits that might even permit health claims, which offers manufacturers added incentive to wipe the “E” numbers off their product labels and invest in clinical studies. These efforts will not only result in cleaner labels, but they may also open up additional, unique selling points. Experienced CROs could advise manufacturers on possible claims and conduct the relevant studies. But what exactly are the alternatives? What natural ingredients lend themselves to replacing artificial additives, and what are some of the claims that can be made?

Exploring the Possibilities

Many spices have been used as preservatives for centuries, among them rosemary and thyme. It is not surprising, therefore, that science has proved antibacterial properties for both of these spices, and that they have also proved to be highly antioxidant, which can help prolong the shelf-life of certain products. Other spices, such as cinnamon and saffron, are popular colorants. Then there are the berries, many of which contain carotenes or anthocyanins, which are replacing artificial colorings in confectioneries such as jelly beans.

The medicinal use of spices is probably as old as their use as flavors. In fact, from observation of primate behavior, it can be argued that spices were used medicinally by homo sapiens as a species—when cooking of any kind did not yet exist. The tradition of adding spices such as cumin to bread in order to aid digestion is probably as old as the baking of bread itself.

Tea mixtures with added natural flavors such as chai, for example, contain a number of spices, among them ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. The spices, apart from adding flavor, also contribute to the health benefits of the tea ingredients. Ginger is a well-known digestive aid, which is effective against motion sickness and nausea. Its main constituents, the gingerols, are highly antioxidant and antibacterial. Licorice, another chai ingredient, is used as an alternative remedy for gastric and duodenal ulcers, sore throat, bronchitis, cough, arthritis and allergic diseases. Chai mixtures are versatile, giving manufacturers the opportunity to create a broad range of products, and they are generally free from artificial colorings or flavorings. The antioxidant properties of the spices contained generally make preservatives unnecessary, even in ready-to-drink teas and near-water beverages containing them.

Ethnic spice mixtures are currently all the rage. Some mixtures also have a strong traditional medicine connection, in particular Ayurveda. Science has substantiated many traditional health benefits of Indian spices. One example is garlic, a staple ofmany other ethnic cuisines, which is becoming increasingly popular in regions without a traditional use of garlic, such as Western Europe.

The various sweet ingredients, from honey to fruits, also have many inherent health benefits. Honey has well-documented antimicrobial properties and contains nearly all essential vitamins and amino acids, making it a nutrient-rich sweetener instead of a merely calorie-rich one.

The antioxidants contained in many fruits have anti-aging properties and also protect from many other degenerative processes in the body. Fruits are also popular because they contain vitamins. Among the new stars is acai, which is currently being investigated for its anti-inflammatory properties. Acai has been shown to have the highest ORAC value of any food, which is a strong argument and easily understood message, the kind that consumers are currently very open to.

Despite the current favorable climate for natural ingredients, the uncertainty of the regulatory environment concerning natural substances and their definition currently holds back innovation, a problem that clearly needs to be addressed. In the meantime, manufacturers can increasingly rely on consumer education and consumers’ preference for substances they perceive as natural, even if official definitions have not yet been established. Pending regulatory certainty, the natural food and drinks sector is set to become very interesting in terms of diversity and health claims in the future.

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