Adaptogenic herbs, super herbs, ancient herbs. No matter what they're called, experts believe the use of adaptogens as food and beverage ingredients has officially come of age in America. These herbs assist in shifting a person’s biochemistry, helping the body adapt to different stressors. "Maybe the stress angle is why they are so in today," Todd Runestad of the Nutrition Business Journal and ingredients editor, Engredea, told Food Dive in an email.
Consumers are increasingly looking for products that contain ingredients to help them chill out, boost immunity, or perk up. Ingredient manufacturers exploring the potential of adaptogenic herbs will find the biggest opportunity is tied to stress relief. "The flip side of that is the hot new buzzword, 'vitality,'" Runestad noted.
"In food products, I’m primarily seeing these adaptogenic herbs pop up in functional beverages," Jenna Blumenfeld, senior food editor, New Hope Network, told Food Dive in an email. "Rebbl Super Herbs, for example, blends reishi, ashwagandha, maca and more with USDA organic coconut milk, coconut sugar and sometimes chocolate or chai spices."
At Natural Products Expo West, products with adaptogenic herbs made appearances in the indulgence space, such as Yes CaCao, which features functional herbs such as maca and reishi in chocolate.
"I just hope manufacturers refrain from pixie dusting such products with ineffective dosages that don’t actually do anything beneficial for you," Blumenfeld added.
One of the most commonly recognized adaptogens comes from ginseng root. Gaining popularity are products that include ashwagandha root, also called the Indian ginseng; schisandra berries; and rhodiola rosea root, also known as the golden root. Other common adaptogens are those derived from eleuthero root/stem bark; maca root; and mushrooms such as reishi, chaga and maitake.
Company Four Sigmatic (formerly for Four Sigma Foods) uses mushrooms in coffees, elixirs, lemonade, and super blends of various mushrooms. On its website, the company states mushrooms are the world’s most studied superfood, and about 40% of Western medicines today, including penicillin, use mushrooms.
Rebbl makes ready-to-drink functional beverages including Golden Milk with Turmeric, Maca Mocha, Maca Cold-Brew Coffee and Matcha Latte. The company’s CEO is Sheryl O'Loughlin, who came onboard last year, and is the co-founder or Plum Organics (acquired by Campbell Soup Co.) and the former CEO of Clif Bar. She was on the board of Rebbl before becoming the CEO, and has served on the board of several food startups.
Opportunities and risks
Manufacturers will find compelling reasons to incorporate adaptogenic herbs into food and beverage products. According to research by the Natural Marketing Institute, in addition to more nutrient-dense foods, consumers are seeking solutions both in food and supplements for stress. NMI found 77% of those surveyed indicate relieving stress would increase their quality of life, and 33% indicate their stress levels have gotten worse in the past 10 years.
The challenge is that more education is needed. "I don’t think the majority of consumers really understand what adaptogenic herbs are, but such ingredients are ripe for growth, as caffeine-free food and beverages increasingly become associated more with health," Blumenfeld wrote.
Companies are being proactive in order to raise awareness of the benefits of products with adaptogenic herbs as ingredients. O’Loughlin told BevNet that Rebbl planned to increase the use of in-store sampling and social media to raise cash and awareness of the products. "We want to use social media to build our voice as a brand. We have to help the discovery process of this product happen."
"If you are marketing an adaptogenic herb product, tap into the more recognizable things in order to [attract] the mainstream consumer," Eric Pierce, director of business insights, NEXT, New Hope Network, said at Natural Products Expo West, according to Food Business News. "Use a recognizable format and … connect the consumer need for help managing stress."
Also keep in mind that with any nutritional ingredient, dosage size matters. And ingredient quality is of paramount importance, in particular with botanicals. Make sure to test the ingredients every time the material changes hands, both on the front end and the back end of your facility, Runestad said.