Functional Food Formulation

Find out the latest ingredients formulators are using to make their foods andbeverages functional.

By Pete Maletto
PTM Food Consulting
Long Branch, NJ

Consumer demand for functional foods and beverages is on the rise in the U.S., driven by an insatiable desire to get more from the products they consume. The health functions of these products range from immune support to energy enhancement to healthy joint function to stress relief to weight loss to promoting overall well-being. In most cases, these “good for you” foods and beverages are infused with nutrients that have the scientific foundation to support the claims made by the manufacturers, whether they are structure-function claims or health claims. But creating a functional food or beverage is not as simple as adding a bunch of healthy ingredients to the recipe. In fact, functional food development is becoming more of a creative art form these days, requiring the expertise of not only those in the food and beverage industry, but also those in the dietary supplement industry.

Important issues that evolve during functional food product ideation include exploring which ingredients to use and what claims can be made. While structure-function claims are frequently utilized, some ingredients also have the benefit of being supported by FDA approved health claims, or qualified health claims.

Often the ingredients a company chooses to include in a functional food or beverage will likely determine its success in the marketplace. Some of the “hot ingredients” currently being utilized by formulators are probiotics, herbal extracts, plant sterols, beta glucans, essential fatty acids (functional fats), antioxidant “superfoods” and “superfruits” and amino acids.

Amino Acids

Using amino acid technology is something that requires a lot of experience. This is especially important when determining how much of an amino acid to use, as specific ratios between them can make all the difference in the world to the end user.

Amino acids are challenging to work with because they usually impart a bitter or salty overtone, making their usage solely dependent on the flavor system that can support it.

Another factor to consider is that once amino acids are added to a product it will fall under dietary supplement regulations and no longer be considered a food. This could impact some food buyers’ decisions in carrying a product using amino acids. For the most part, however, this doesn’t seem to be much of a hurdle.

For years formulators have been using amino acids because they produce a desirable function the user can feel. For example, amino acids such as L-phenylalanine or L-tyrosine are excellent precursors to the energizing central nervous system neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that the brain uses to communicate with itself and the rest of the body.

By including “specific nutrition” in a beverage using these amino acids to raise norepinephrine, formulators have been able to boost neurotransmitters in products that safely provide the user energy without “drop-offs” or “crashes” like caffeine would inflict, for example. While using these amino acids alone does not provide as much of a “speed effect,” formulators find they can reduce overall caffeine and still maintain a “punch” while reducing the crash effect.

For some products amino acids are used to create a calming effect. In this case, formulators can often to substances like GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) or serotonin, which are inhibitory neurotransmitters. It’s even possible to use straight GABA powder or herbal extracts such as L-theanine to support GABA processes.

Serotonin can be supported using an herb named Griffonia simplicifolia standardized for 5-hydroxytrytphan (5-HTP). By nutritionally supporting inhibitory neurotransmitters formulators can produce a product that has a calming effect on the end user.

Another amino acid that has been garnering a lot of attention lately is L-arginine. This multi-function amino acid can support healthy growth hormone levels when taken at a specific time, and produce nitric oxide synthase. Called NO, it has vasodilator properties, i.e., it triggers the cellular responses that relax and dilate the vessel walls when needed, so as to lower blood pressure and increase blood flow. NO functions in the cardiovascular system as a central regulator of vascular tone, cellular endothelial adhesion, platelet aggregation and thrombosis.

Growth hormone and NO play very different roles in human physiology, but the one thing they do have in common is their ability to prevent bad cholesterol from building up on the blood vessel walls (atherogenesis).

One of the trickiest parts of using amino acid technology is in the area of proteins. Adding protein to a beverage that already contains L-tyrosine, for example, would be worthless because many of the amino acids in protein will compete with L-tyrosine, interfere with the body’s metabolism, and therefore reduce its effectiveness.

While many consumers see the amino acid taurine on their energy drink label, it is anything but a stimulant. Taurine is primarily used as a buffer for high caffeine contents to reduce jitters, but it also supports the cardiovascular system and helps expel excess sodium, acting as a diuretic.

Other useful amino acids are those that can aid in muscle repair, such as L-glutamine, or branched chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine.

Probiotics & Prebiotics

Probiotics are cultures of beneficial microorganisms that have been shown to improve digestion and support immune function. While many types (i.e., strains) of bacteria are available, the primary function of probiotics is to serve as the body’s first line of defense.

The two most common bacteria added in the production of probiotic foods, beverages and supplements are Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. There are numerous species of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, but the main species thought to possess health benefits include: L. casei, B. lactis, B. animalis, L. rhamnosus, B. infantis, L. reuteri, B. longum, L. johnsonii, B. breve, L. bulgaricus, and the most popular, L. acidophilus.

By including probiotics in the diet, consumers can take charge of their health by shutting out the microbes that can make them sick. In fact, for some consumers with intestinal ailments the inclusion of beneficial bacteria, or probiotics, can make all the difference in their lives.

Using probiotics in foods such as yogurt or yogurt beverages create an advantage for the food scientist because the lactic acid bacteria present are able to convert sugars (including lactose) and other carbohydrates into lactic acid. This not only provides the characteristic sour taste of fermented dairy foods such as yogurt, but also acts as a preservative, lowering the pH and increasing shelf life.

In the very near future, there may be more stable, non-refrigerated probiotic forms incorporated into coatings, cereals and beverages. For some companies like Kashi the future is already here. In fact, last year the company launched a new product called Kashi Vive Probiotic Digestive Wellness Cereal (pictured on page 36), which is laced with the probiotic bacteria L. acidophilus and L. casei.

Maintenance of healthy gut flora is dependent on many factors, especially the quality of food intake. Including a significant proportion of prebiotics in the diet has been demonstrated to support (i.e., feed) probiotic bacteria and may be a more effective and sustainable means of achieving the desirable health benefits promised by probiotics. In fact, probiotics are most effective when prebiotics are also used in the food formulation. Many of formulations that include probiotics also utilize the prebiotic inulin from chicory root to maximize effectiveness for the end user. But when using any prebiotic and probiotic it is important that the product fall within the correct range of pH, so that stability and shelf life are maximized.

The interest in prebiotics and probiotics will continue to grow and fuel excitement in the medical arena. Researchers have already determined that specific strains of beneficial bacteria can help address various gastrointestinal diseases, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and infections in the stomach and small intestine. Research is also building in the children’s health arena with respect to immunity, as well as in the elderly community in the context of improving nutritional status. These two demographics are particularly important because they are most in need of these valuable microorganisms.

Functional Fats

Over the past several decades, the ingredient segment to have the biggest impact on the nutrition and alternative medicine industry is essential fatty acids (EFAs), otherwise known as omega 3, 6 and 9. This is simply because they have the largest, most substantiated positive impact on health.

EFAs provide nutritional support to the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune and nervous systems. The human body needs EFAs to manufacture and repair cell membranes; they are also helpful for reducing inflammatory processes in the body.

EFAs are also needed for proper growth in children, particularly for neural development and maturation of sensory systems. Breastfed infants require an adequate supply of EFAs through the mother’s dietary intake, which is why it’s so critical for mothers who breastfeed to include the omega 3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in their supplement program.

Clinical research has shown that EFA’s are responsible for reducing the incidence of stroke and heart attack, alleviating arthritis and inflammatory conditions, and lowering blood pressure and triglycerides. Preliminary research has also shown EFAs to be helpful in tackling mood disorders and increasing sex drive.

It is critical and responsible for all food manufacturers to move in the direction of including EFAs in product formulations. At this point it has been shown that the benefits are way too important not to include them. Further, cost is minimal to implement these life-extending ingredients.

In terms of the benefits of including them in certain formulations, this of it this way: Including EFAs in a children’s product could improve learning and maintain optimal brain function, and possibly even prevent hyperactivity. For the elderly, products that include EFAs could go a long way toward supporting joint health, providing cardiovascular benefits and sustaining healthy brain function.

Currently, food scientists have several options for adding or increasing the levels of omega 3’s and 6’s in the food supply. It should be noted, however, that a EFAs have their advantages and drawbacks.

In some foods, such as cereal or crackers, formulators have the option of adding many forms of flaxseed. Fish oils are also a great way to fortify foods, but there are still some issues with regard to taste and stability, and only a few companies have been able to overcome some of these hurdles—i.e., Ocean Nutrition Canada, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada, Martek Biosciences, Columbia, MD, etc. Most recently, Cargill, Minneapolis, MN, jumped into the omega 3 ingredients business, promising no discernible change in flavor or shelf life.

So far one of the most successful solutions for food formulators has been the use omega 3’s derived from vegetarian sources (algae). Because this omega 3 ingredient is derived from algae grown outside of the ocean and does not come from fish, it does not pose the same sensory, stability and formulation challenges that have been associated with fish and flax oils.

Other functional fats formulators continue to experiment with in foods and beverages include conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and sesame lignans, which are useful for the promotion of weight loss and favorable blood lipid composition.

Another ingredient ready for introduction in the U.S. for dairy applications is Lipid Nutrition’s (Channahon, IL) pine nut oil, which is extracted from the seeds of the Korean pine. The product, branded Pinnothin, is said to stimulate the hunger-suppressing hormone CCK (cholecystokinin) and GLP1 (glucagonlike peptide) to support healthy weight loss.

DSM Food Specialties, Delft, The Netherlands, is also making an impact with its new fat emulsion, which slows digestion. Called Fabuless, the ingredient was recently tested in a single shot weight loss drink in Europe, introduced by dairy giant Campina. The product has been flying off the shelves since it launched.

Antioxidants: ‘Superfoods’ and ‘Superfruits’

Over the past 50 years, scientists have discovered certain mechanisms that are responsible for the progressive degradation of body functions—they call this oxidative stress.

A good analogy of oxidative stress is simply explained as the car with no paint. When you leave an unpainted car outside it eventually gets rusty as the steel goes through an oxidation process. The rust gets deeper until holes appear and eventually complete destruction of the car occurs. The same kind of process happens within the human body every day. The difference is the human body does not go through a single process like a rusting surface—it contains several different systems that age at different rates.

Today, through functional foods and beverages, manufacturers are harnessing the power of antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress. Antioxidants are nutrients that reduce the damage caused by uncontrolled oxidation products of lipids called organic peroxides. Science has shown that these organic peroxides from oxidation are mutagens that cause damage to the cellular DNA (the body’s blueprint for new cell structure). Without antioxidants, the peroxides eventually create free radicals and cause elevated oxidative stress levels that inflict damage at a cellular level.

Medical research has shown that antioxidants can help cells defend against this damage through nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. We know these nutrients as the common vitamins A, C, E, and the minerals selenium and zinc. But more recently, another class of antioxidants is taking center stage. These antioxidants are known as phytochemicals, which are natural organic compounds found in plants, fruits and superfoods.

Phytochemicals represent the latest trend in functional food development. This is probably because phytochemicals have been shown in some cases to be over 200 times more powerful than vitamin E; others show even greater antioxidant potential more specific to each system in the human body. Finally, science is showing that oxidative stress can be reduced with certain superfoods tailored to a specific function in the human body.

Since phytochemicals show promise in reducing oxidative stress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created a set of values to quantify their potential. This measurement is commonly referred to as ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity). It scientifically measures which superfoods contain the greatest amount of antioxidant capability. ORAC is widely accepted, but not without its critics. (See the March 2007 issue of Nutraceuticals World for more information on the state of ORAC and how this measurement of antioxidant capacity has evolved over the years.)

Some superfoods cast a wide range of free radical fighting phytochemicals—the most powerful classes are flavonoids and polyphenols. Superfoods that have a greater concentration of these antioxidant compounds have a higher ORAC value and therefore are more effective at reducing oxidative stress.

For example, green tea has high catechin and polyphenol content, but it gets a lot of attention for its anti-cancer and free radical fighting capabilities. However one superfood boasting even higher antioxidant content is dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate’s phytochemical content contains the main flavonoid polyphenols epicatechin and catechin (both found in green tea), and polymers of these, the proanthocyanidins (found in the very popular antioxidant grape seed and pine bark extract).

Clinical studies have shown consuming dark chocolate cocoa flavonoids to be associated with maintaining optimal cardiovascular health, preventing cancers and mutations, and positively influencing the aging process.

Dark chocolate’s cocoa flavonoids have also been demonstrated to scavenge reactive oxygen and reactive nitrogen free radicals. They can also chelate metals, such as iron, which also participate in elevated free radical activity. The most popular clinical study on cocoa flavonoids has shown that they inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, a key factor in the development and progression of cardiovascular disease.

While cocoa flavonoids reduce oxidative stress they also seem to interact with brain chemistry. The polyphenol content in cocoa increases antioxidant activity in the brain, improving cell communication. Cocoa flavonoids also have been shown to induce a calm feeling by positively affecting serotonin levels. This is also enhanced by cocoa’s ability to produce a natural chemical called anandamide in the brain, which acts as a euphoric natural painkiller.

Several raw material suppliers are jumping on the cocoa antioxidant bandwagon, offering the undutched non-processed cocoas (which have higher concentrations of catechins and other antioxidants), as well as cocoas laced polyphenols. The potential for formulating healthy chocolate products is huge simply because people the world over have had a love affair with chocolate for centuries.

Other very powerful antioxidants can be found in berries, most of which contain anthocyanins, which is the group of phytochemicals found in red wine. Anthocyanins, a flavonoid category, were found in one clinical study to have the combined antioxidant power of over 150 types of flavonoids.

USDA recently tested various berries for their ability to protect against oxidative damage. In general, they found wolfberry, açai, blueberry, raspberry and bilberry to have the highest antioxidant capacity of any fruit. Different varieties of the same species have varying amounts of anthocyanins.

Antioxidant-containing berries are now found in many mainstream functional drinks and foods. Even Häagen Dazs has added açai to its “Reserve” Ice Cream line. It even included another very popular antioxidant fruit in one of its ice creams recently—pomegranate.

Pomegranate is found just about everywhere these days and its popularity continues to soar. Pomegranate is a good source of a group of antioxidant polyphenols known as tannins. They have been shown in over 40 peer-reviewed research publications over the past 20 years to have potent free radical scavenging abilities.

Furthermore, in preliminary laboratory research and human pilot studies the juice of the pomegranate has been found effective in reducing heart disease risk factors, including LDL oxidation, macrophage oxidative status, and foam cell formation, all of which are steps leading to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.

More specifically, tannins such as punicalagins from pomegranate have been identified as the primary components responsible for the reduction of oxidative stress. In studies, pomegranate has been shown to reduce systolic blood pressure by inhibiting serum angiotensin-converting enzyme. It has also exhibited antiviral and antibacterial effects against dental plaque.

New research even suggests that pomegranate juice may be effective against prostate cancer and osteoarthritis. This year alone, six clinical trials in the U.S., Israel and Norway have been approved to examine the effects of pomegranate juice consumption on parameters of prostate cancer or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), diabetes and lymphoma. With research on pomegranate in full swing, manufacturers are expected to take advantage of positive outcomes so they can use the claims associated with the research to boost market advantage.

Other foods showing excellent antioxidant capacity are green foods such as wheat grass, barley grass, blue green algae, chlorella and spirulina. These foods contain a powerful enzyme called SOD (super oxide dismutase), which helps the body reduce oxidation by boosting its own internal antioxidant stores. Popularity of these healthful “green ingredients” is growing in the U.S. and mainstream food and beverage manufacturers are really starting to take notice.

It is safe to say that the functional food and beverage market is in the midst of an antioxidant superfood revolution. Twenty years ago, researchers would have been hard-pressed to find any scientific studies highlighting the importance of these components in the diet. Today, however, the medical journals are filled with such references, recognizing and acknowledging in most cases the very important roles that these superfoods and superfruits play in the maintenance of health and the prevention of disease.

Beta-Glucan: A Solution for the Diabetic Consumer

Presently, 7% of the U.S. population has diabetes—over 20 million have type 1 diabetes, while over 54 million have type 2 diabetes. Most consumers have become diabetics through years of excessive carbohydrate consumption, their pancreas abused from years of constantly producing insulin to force back the tide of blood sugar produced by processed foods and sugars.

With this in mind, manufacturers are looking to create solutions for the diabetic consumer, which is why they are turning to the glycemic index for answers.

Most recently, companies have been looking at reducing glycemic index and glycemic load by using ingredients that can slow the rate of carbohydrate absorption. One of those ingredients is a multi-functional viscous fiber called beta-glucan.

The health benefits of beta-glucan food enrichment are mounting. By slowing down the rate of carbohydrate absorption, numerous benefits occur, including: support of healthy cholesterol levels, weight management and diabetes maintenance and prevention.

These are critical times, especially since diabetes is a disease considered an epidemic amongst most segments of the population. However, the responsible use of barley beta-glucan in the food supply can slow the growth of this epidemic.

One company working toward this end is Cargill Health & Food Technologies, Minneapolis, MN, which is promoting a barley-based product called Barliv. It contains a very high concentration of over 70% beta-glucan.

Another player in the beta-glucan arena is Cevena Bioproducts, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, which produces a product called Viscofiber. It contains oat and barley beta-glucan and is claimed by the company to be 20 times more viscous than any other beta-glucan product on the market.

The health impact of beta-glucan stretches far beyond the diabetic consumer, however. In fact, it should probably be used in just about every cereal and bread product in the marketplace simply because the wide range of health benefits are too critical to pass up.

Plant Sterols

Due to recent FDA drug recalls, consumer worries about the effects of prescription medications in the U.S. are at an all time high. Consumers are more wary of prescription drug usage than ever before and with the recent studies of cholesterol lowering statin drugs possibly causing cognitive impairment (of course, cholesterol is a major component of the brain), U.S. consumers are turning to food to lower cholesterol, signaling a significant opportunity for food and beverage manufacturers.

One ingredient class that has become part of the cholesterol solution is plant sterols. These natural ingredients are structurally similar to cholesterol and reduce absorption on the small intestine surface. Thus, excessive cholesterol is excreted from the body.

Plant sterols can be added to just about any food, condiment or beverage. And when adding fiber, formulators can elevate the cholesterol-lowering potential of a particular food. For example, combining ADM’s (Decatur, IL) Fibersol 2 or Cargill’s Barliv with plant sterols can provide powerful cholesterol-lowering benefits in one product.

The Future Of Functional Foods

While the future of functional foods continues to grow at an exponential rate, the back-story is the evolution of foods. Everyday foods and beverages are evolving and the functional foods of today will be the foods of the future. Of course, companies must remember that the consumer will still be motivated by good tasting food, and the functional technologies we implement will eventually become a normal part of their diet.

Meanwhile, food and beverage companies will continue to bank on the research associated with functional ingredients, so that credible health claims can be utilized without interference from the government organizations.

One of the issues on the horizon is the blurring of the lines between functional foods and beverages and dietary supplements. A dietary supplement is defined under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) as a product that is intended to supplement the diet. Unless an ingredient is generally recognized as safe (GRAS), it will fall under DSHEA, which provides a different set of guidelines that companies need to follow. This becomes an issue for suppliers that have safe, effective ingredients and that for one reason or another cannot achieve GRAS status and get locked out of usage in foods. Therefore, their use in products like energy beverages requires the finished product to be labeled as a dietary supplement and carry the necessary ingredient information and disclaimers.

As foods and beverages become more “healing,” the markets may witness an epic battle between “big pharma” and “big food,” as pharmaceutical giants will most likely continue their efforts to keep U.S. consumers on medications and render food as merely products that possess little value as far as health is concerned. If this happens, the battle will most likely involve the FDA (an agency considered to have close ties to big pharma), and just like the abuse the dietary supplement industry has endured, big food could have its fair share of trouble in the future too.

It is ultimately up to responsible food scientists to push manufacturers in the direction of new functional technologies in an effort to create healthier foods with life-saving, life-extending potential. Removing artificial ingredients and excessive sugars is a great start, but the next step is creating foods that have health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

About the author: Pete Maletto is the president of PTM Food Consulting, Long Branch, NJ. The company has been leading the way in functional food development because of its vast experience in the biochemistry of nutritional ingredients. With over 20 years experience in dietary supplement formulations and over 15 years in food product development, the company has the expertise to make foods and beverages that have a functional purpose. Mr. Maletto can be reached at 732-693-1516; E-mail: pete; Website:

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