New science and new products are helping to give this category a shot in the arm. Joysa Winter examines what companies are doing to make it happen
The heyday of the 1990s still feels like a lifetime ago to many botanicals suppliers, who look at the 20 per cent annual growth rates registered during those years with wistful nostalgia. But the good news is, the sector is slowly coming back from what Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ) once dubbed the 'sucker punch' of negative press in the late '90s.
"Herbs and botanicals sales fared marginally better in 2006 than at any other time since 1999, when the category made its infamous dive from 13 per cent to three per cent growth as a result of the first wave of negative media, much of it around St. John's wort," NBJ concludes in its 2007 report. But while the herbal category has yet to fully recover, 2006 was the best in a few years for the category, with a growth rate of four per cent.
"Most of 2006 growth was in natural retail or direct, paced by liquid botanicals, but worthy of note was that mass market singles halted its five-year decline," the report states.
Botanicals suppliers themselves paint a more optimistic picture, many reporting robust sales and growing demand for their products. Their reports are backed up by NBJ's observations.
"One of the few bright spots in herb and botanical pills in 2006 was cranberry supplements, which grew 12 per cent and are being linked to conditions other than urinary-tract health," NBJ says. "Pharmavite's CranAssure is a food, drug and mass-market category leader."
But it has been the superfruit tonics that have most buoyed the category. "In 2005, liquid botanicals kept herbal and botanical supplements in positive territory, and in 2006, more modest growth added a percentage point to growth in a segment of which it now just represents 10 per cent. Liquid botanicals noni, mangosteen, goji and açai have all done well, and noni is now the largest subcategory in the herb and botanical segment with sales of $260 million, with mangosteen third with $150 million."
New uses for old standbys
A signature trend in the botanicals sector right now is the growing influence of scientific research. Scientists are verifying new uses for traditionally used plants, as well as discovering uses no one previously imagined.
"The market seems to be growing," agrees Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the nonprofit American Botanical Council. "There's a continuing attempt by suppliers to differentiate their product and this differentiation is interesting; we're seeing a growth in research, everything from in vitro, lab, test tube and petri-dish assays, to occasionally some animal trials. There are more human clinical trials, even though many are small pilot trials. Some of these don't have a lot of statistical power, but they can document historical uses and modern scientifically developed uses."
Some of this research has uncovered new plant properties. One example comes from the Japanese firm Kaneka, which recently launched a licorice-root fraction called Glavanoid, which has been shown to reduce visceral fat, with potential applications for heart health, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Previously, licorice was primarily known for its ability to loosen chest congestion and treat inflammation.
Another novel finding is for the use of hops, traditionally known as a sedative. California-based Metagenics discovered that the alpha acids and their derivatives from hops can selectively inhibit the pro-inflammatory activities of the COX-2 enzyme without affecting the housekeeping activities of COX-2 (protection of the gastro-intestinal lining). The company's Luduxin and Tetrase ingredients offer anti-inflammatory support with high degrees of safety.
To date, the company has about a dozen animal and scientific clinical trials, either published or in process, documenting hops' anti-inflammatory benefits.
A third interesting launch has been by Muller-Goppingen in Germany, which is unveiling a new herbal extract this spring from the rhaponticum rhubarb root, with clinically proven benefits for menopause symptoms. This particular species of rheubarb is typically not eaten because of its laxative properties, Blumenthal says, but the company has found a way to remove the anthrones from the plant, which cause the laxative effect.
"Their new ingredient, called Phytostrol N-ERr731, will present a real challenge this year to red clover and black cohosh," he said. "They have two published clinical trials behind it already."
Other key ingredient trends
Berries have been a major player in new ingredient launches over the past 18 months.
Decas Botanical Synergies of Massachusetts unveiled BerryOrganics, a line of 100 per cent organic whole-berry powders, including cranberry, raspberry, blackberry and bilberry. "Cranberry and superfruits in general continue to be hot," says Doug Klaiber, chief operating officer. "We grew substantially in 2007, and new markets in India and China have yet to be exploited. Our new BerryOrganics line will appeal to companies eager to tap into the growing market for wholesome berry products while looking for the added edge provided by organics."
Synergy Production Laboratories launched its own berry-powder line, called Synergized Berry Power, a certified organic and 100 per cent-fresh freeze-dried proprietary blend of 12 superfood berries (including whole berries, seeds and juice). Available in a free-flowing powder, it can be used in any application, including powdered drink mixes, tablets, capsules, food bars and functional
foods.Cyvex Nutrition added Q-Vida quebracho extract to its branded high-ORAC botanicals line in 2007. "Scientific research has concluded that an average person needs approximately 5,000 ORAC units per day to provide a significant impact on the body's natural defence against oxidative stress," Charlene Lee, executive vice president and general manager, explained. "About 400mg of Q-Vida supplies 5200 ORAC units." The ingredient joins the company's BerryVin high-ORAC berry product, and its 2008 introduction of VitaTropic high-ORAC tropical extracts.
California-based Draco unveiled a yum berry (Myrica rubra) ingredient, which contains high levels of myricetin. "Myriceten works similarly to resveratrol and has shown to have anti-ageing effects on the body," says Mike Irwin, director of business development. The company also launched a gardenia extract (Gardenia jasminoides) rich in crocetin. "It is a bright-yellow carotenoid that can be used as a natural colouring with added health benefits. It has a high antioxidant value and liver protection," Irwin says. Unique ingredient launches — either capitalizing upon or as the result of the latest scientific research — have been another propelling force in the botanicals sector.
French company Naturex launched FraxiPure, a patent-pending extract of Fraxinus excelsior seed. "Fraxinus excelsior is a tree in the Oleaceae family popularly known as 'common ash' or 'European ash,' and found in the temperate regions of Asia and Europe," says Antoine Dauby, marketing manager. "Fraxinus excelsior contains coumarins, secoiridoids and phenylethanoids — all documented properties for use in the weight-loss market."
In vitro and in vivo studies on Fraxi-Pure currently are under way. Studies on Fraxinus excelsior-seed extract have shown potent antihyperglycaemic activities in rats, significant hypotensive and antihypertensive actions in normotensive and hypertensive rats, as well as significant diuretic effects, Dauby explains.
Seeking to capitalize on recent research, Ecuadorian Rainforest of New Jersey unveiled an LLC-chia seed, a pomegranate-juice powder and a fermented-soy powder. Chia seed is a palatable omega-3 alternative to flax and fish oils. The company is optimistic about pomegranate juice in light of recent studies that have shown a reduction in arterial plaque upwards of 30 per cent. And fermented soy can offer unique bioavailability of isoflavones over nonfermented soy, explains vice president Steve Siegel. "Substances in fermented-soy foods have been found to alleviate the severity of hot flashes, to cause a reduction in cholesterol and to inhibit the progression of atherosclerosis," he says.
Sabinsa has launched tetrahydrocurcuminoids, an antioxidant from turmeric root that acts as a skin lightener, skin brightener and skin-whitening agent, now available for oral supplementation; and a new line of Super Critical Fluid Extracts that have not undergone any alcohol or solvent processes other than carbon dioxide, for a more pure and natural ingredient.
Last November, Sabinsa was awarded a patent for its Cococin ingredient. The patent covers nutritional, cosmetic and pharmaceutical compositions containing active ingredients from the liquid endosperm of fresh green coconuts (Cocos nucifera), which can be used as a natural beverage, an oral rehydrating agent and a supplement in nutrient media for tissue culture.
AM Todd Botanical Therapeutics dramatically expanded its product offerings in 2007. "Some of the most popular are our wide variety of chondroitin and glucosamine products, and bilberry extract," says Bob King, president and CEO. "These products are manufactured in an NSF, GMP-registered facility. We have also been named distributor for CinSulin, the only water extract of cinnamon patented for all applications relating to the maintenance of healthy levels of blood glucose."
Back at Synergy, the company created a line of certified-organic and kosher cereal grass-juice powders under the Synergized brand name, made using a proprietary CO2-drying method to ensure nutritional potency. The range includes wheat, kamut, oat, alfalfa and barley-grass juice powders.
Industry insiders say to expect rising supply costs; continued attention to quality control in China; and greater demand for botanicals overall, especially in the areas of superfruits and organics.
"We see prices rising in 2008," says George Pontiakos, president and CEO of BI Nutraceuticals in California, one of the largest botanicals importers and exporters in the US. "Sourcing has been significantly impacted by rising fuel costs and poor growing conditions. The unprecedented snowfall in China is impacting growth all over the place, not to mention the ability to get the product out of the country. Fuel surcharges are significant. I estimate we are up 20 per cent year over year in fuel costs alone."
China faces other challenges these days due to its recent spate of dangerous or even deadly agricultural and consumer products. Ongoing problems of poor quality control and little regulatory enforcement threaten to scare away consumers.
"Quality that cannot be validated, and underhanded efforts to creatively manipulate test results, are no longer acceptable in the marketplace," Lee at Cyvex says. "This makes importation no longer an easy free-for-all. There are also qualitative differences in their products. As I say about our BioVin French full-spectrum grape extract, 'a glass of wine from France and a glass of wine from China are two different things — and so are the extracts!'"
Draco believes manufacturers will continue buying from China, but with greater demands for quality control. "Regulatory agencies in China, the US and other countries are imposing scrutiny in areas that were previously ignored," Irwin says.
Meanwhile, back in the US, Pontiakos credits the beverage and energy markets with the growing demand for botanicals, coupled with growing demand for organic functional foods. "Bilberry, açai, guarana — all the superfruits we offer are increasing significantly," he says. "Following trends in Europe, people are now putting botanicals in everything from beers to energy drinks."
It is in meeting this growing demand for organics that is perhaps the greatest challenge for suppliers these days.
"We source from 70 different countries and in most places in the world, fields are still harvested by hand, with little mechanization," Pontiakos says. "Not much organic land has been set aside and much of it has been heavily polluted. Fields have to stay fallow for seven years, and sterilizing organics is a challenge for many people who might enter the field. Just because it's organic doesn't mean it's clean. You have to ensure the vendor that you are purchasing from has the infrastructure to ensure you don't get contaminated products into your end-use product."
BI Nutraceuticals has tackled the problem with its ProTexx High Heat Steam process, launched five years ago, which hits the raw materials with a low dose of water to accelerate microbial and fungus growth — and then hits it with high steam. "It sterilizes to the same level of ETO, but it's totally organic," Pontiakos says.
Steven Lattey, director of raw-materials sales and business development at Synergy, sees great opportunity for any company that can excel in the arena of organic whole-food powders in particular.
"USP microbiological specifications do not allow for the production of certified organic, raw, whole-food powders," Lattey explains. "They are pharmaceutical specifications and require heat, irradiation or ethanol oxide to conform.
"With the knowledge that whole-food nutrients are more readily recognized by the body than isolated compounds — and with the rise in organic, whole foods in the market — this is an issue. The company that develops a certified organic-approved method for reducing micros without damaging sensitive phytonutrients will have an advantage in the market. To date this technology does not exist," he says.
For more on botanicals, see 'Ethical and Legal Focus.'