While faraway places are now more accessible than ever, the planet still holds mysteries. From deep inside the Amazon rain forest to the peaks of the Himalayas, scientists are discovering rare, indigenous plants with a host of medicinal properties. Here’s a look at some of the newest, hottest functional food and beverage ingredients made from these botanicals.
Source: This deep purple berry is native to Patagonia.
Nutritional value: Maqui is poised to become the superstar of superfruits thanks to its powerful antioxidant content. A 100-gram serving of maqui scores 27,600 on the ORAC scale—a measurement of a food’s antioxidant levels—compared with 16,700 for açai, 10,500 for pomegranate and 6,500 for blueberry.
Why it’s hot: Beverage makers are just beginning to include maqui—described as having a creamy taste with notes of dried fruits—in superfruit juice blends. It also has potential as a natural coloring.
Source: The African baobab tree, known as the “tree of life” because it can thrive for more than 1,000 years, produces green, velvety fruit and an edible powder that coats the fruit. The main baobab ingredient source is PhytoTrade Africa, which emphasizes fair trade and sustainable harvesting. Ecocert organic certification is pending.
Nutritional value: Studies show baobab fruit powder has more than twice as many antioxidants as goji berries and six times the antioxidants of cranberries, blueberries or blackberries. It also has more calcium than dairy products, more iron than red meat or lentils, and six times the potassium of a banana.
Why it’s hot: Baobab fruit powder has been trendy in Europe for the last two years, and hit the U.S. market in late 2009 after achieving generally recognized as safe status. Although the ingredient hasn’t shown up in many finished products yet, PhytoTrade Africa says the fruit powder’s unique taste—described as “caramel pear with subtle tones of grapefruit”—combined with its natural thickening properties and high potassium content, has fueled the interest of smoothie and sports drink manufacturers. Baobab’s plant-based calcium and iron sources also make it attractive for vegetarian and vegan products.
Source: This small, red berry comes from a shrub that grows along the banks of the Amazon River. Growers recently started producing sustainably harvested, organic camu camu.
Nutritional value: Dubbed “nature’s vitamin pill,” camu is thought to have the most vitamin C of any food on the planet—30 to 60 times more than an orange. It also has a broad range of antioxidants, phytochemicals and amino acids, and a 2005 study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry found that camu contains a polyphenol that helps prevent cancer.
Why it’s hot: Camu camu has a tart, tangy and intense citrus flavor that blends well with other fruits in immunity-boosting juices and smoothies, says Wes Crain, vice president of Navitas Naturals, an ingredients supplier in Novato, Calif. Although there are few finished products at this point that contain camu, Crain envisions it in cereal, dairy products or baked goods.
New use for an old food
One of most novel ingredients in the superhot weight-loss and gluten-free categories is a fiber made from the seed coats of peas.
Pea fiber is naturally gluten free, low-cal and low-carb. Plus, a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Food Science showed that banana bread and biscotti made with pea flour (a less refined version of pea fiber) helped regulate insulin levels in overweight adults. Pea fiber’s bland flavor, light color and smooth texture make it a good option for baked goods, pastas, cookies, crackers and nutrition bars, according to Chelmsford, Mass.-based SunOpta Ingredients Group, which recently added pea fiber to its product line.
While there are many functional food ingredients in the pipeline, two are generating buzz.
Natural eggshell membrane received generally recognized as safe status in the U.S. last fall, and is expected to show up in beverages, juices, baked goods, soft candy and snack foods soon, according to its supplier, Carthage, Mo.- based ESM Technologies. Two studies have shown that the glycosaminoglycans and proteins in NEM can reduce pain and increase flexibility in joints and connective tissues.
Chitin-glucan, a type of fungus that is being studied for its ability to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, is marketed by St. Charles, Mo.-based Stratum Nutrition under the name Artinia, and received European approval last summer as a food ingredient. It’s expected to be used as a fiber in a variety of products.