Just what kinds of antioxidants are finished product manufacturers looking for today?
Like many things in life, it depends whom you ask. But ingredients companies are reporting continued interest in mainstays like açai and cranberry. They also are noting a few new players on the scene, such as camu-camu and acerola.
Family-owned Ecuadorian Rainforest has been in the antioxidants ingredients business since it was founded in 1997. The New Jersey-based company sells more than 300 ingredients, with about 90 percent of their clients based in the US.
In the company's early years, clients tended to call looking for a specific ingredient—açai, kale, broccoli. Nowadays though, formulators tend to be looking for an ingredient with condition-specific applications.
"One of our growing areas of interest is sports nutrition," Siegel said. "Formulators are looking for ways to make their sports products healthier and move beyond the basic sports nutrition ingredients like whey. Antioxidants are a natural fit. Consumers are willing to pay more for a premium beverage if it has natural health benefit, and once you have penetrated the sports market, that message translates over to the everyday consumer."
Of the company's hundreds of ingredients, dozens of them register as "high" in antioxidant value. Five years ago, its biggest sellers were blueberry, cranberry and artichoke. Today, top sellers include maqui berry, camu-camu, acerola and açai.
Manufacturers less interested in ORAC values
Five years ago, clients were also more likely to ask about an ingredient's ORAC value. Today, that is less true.
"We did a marketing campaign a few years ago called 'Fresh' where we promoted what were the highest ORAC-value ingredients at the time," Siegel said. "Now, when I look at that list, I laugh. They seem kind of puny because things have come out since then that are much higher. Even just two years ago, maqui berry came out and it has something like 300,000 ORAC units. Now, I've heard there's a Canadian blueberry, which we don't carry, that has something like 700,000 ORAC units.
"I must say, though, that I have not really seen any ORAC values printed on any product labels anywhere. I think it is more of a buzz word with manufacturers than with consumers, and overall, there is less interest in it."
Antioxidants susceptible to false health claims
Alexander Schauss, PhD, FACN, a senior research director at food industry consultancy AIBMR Life Sciences Inc, takes issue with how some companies are using ORAC values (he was not referring to Ecuadorian Rainforest).
"As a food scientist, it is frustrating to see false claims promoted at trade shows and on ingredient supplier websites," Schauss said. "For example, the maqui berry is a good source of anthocyanins. Only a few in vitro studies have been carried out on the berry. However, some ingredient suppliers claim it has twice the antioxidant capacity of the açai palm fruit, and many more times that of blueberries, pomegranate, or cranberries.
"Unfortunately, the claim made is false. Scientific publications and the USDA food antioxidant database show that açai pulp is four times higher in antioxidant capacity than maqui berry."
Recent actions by regulatory bodies like the European Union's Food Safety Authority come as no surprise to Schauss. In February, EFSA rejected a majority of the proposed health claims submitted on antioxidants.
"Untruthful and misleading claims are not only wrong, but they attract regulatory attention and give the nutraceutical and functional foods industry a bad name," Schauss said. "For this reason, regulators are taking a hard look at the evidence to support claims and where it appears in the public domain."
The Medicine Hunter weighs in
Asking a guy like Medicine Hunter Chris Kilham to pick his favorite new antioxidant is a little bit like asking a sun tanner to pick her favorite ray of the sun. Impossible. But here's what he had to say, at about the rate of an X-15 rocket engine:
"I like yerba mate, and guayusa, sold by Runa—they have some very cool sustainability operations down [in the Amazon]. One of the great North American superfruits is black currant. Its concentration of anthocyanins and its ORAC value are off the charts. It's very nutritious from that standpoint, and it tastes delicious.
"I'm a big fan of maqui berry in Chile, from the Patagonia region. It's a tremendous purple berry harvested wild, with blood sugar-regulating properties. Schisandra (Magnolia Vine) really stands out for its mental benefits. Its sold as a juice in a network marketing company, and in supplements, encapsulated, which works very well since it requires very little material to derive its benefits. A few companies like Solarae and Nature's Way sell it. But it has never been a major seller, and I don't think it has yet seen its day in the spotlight."
"Oh, and I also love seabuckthorn. It's widely used by athletes, with all kinds of benefits—it just hasn't had a long-term advocate."
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