Ancient Botanicals with Modern Applications

Essential Oils

Ancient Botanicals with Modern Applications

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Hippocrates was credited for the saying “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. He was an important figure in the history of medicine because he was among the earliest to assert that diseases were caused by natural processes.   Currently, the idea of what we eat and drink having an impact on our health is widely accepted.  Even with this knowledge, most consumers will opt for an easier way out.  It is much easier to pop a pill to cure an illness than to eat right. Fast-paced lives, financial constraints, and time limitations have contributed to the boom in eating more processed and/or prepared foods than taking time to “whip something up” in the kitchen.  This perfect storm has contributed to an increase in diseases that are not only life-threatening but debilitating too.

As an industry, prepared foods and beverages are in the right place to capitalize on the need for healthier food/beverage options.  If we are honest with ourselves, most prepared foods have lacked the nutritional punch that their whole food counterparts contain.  In most cases, being healthy was sacrificed for convenience, price, and taste. The tide is changing as consumers are now seeking healthier alternatives and the prepared food and beverage industry are in the position to do something about it.  In order to help this process along, the addition of botanicals into foods and beverages should be a consideration if we really want food to be thy medicine.

By adding botanicals (Herbs) we create healthier foods that help address some of society’s largest health concerns.  Leading global health challenges such as; obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, infectious disease, structural health (bones, joints, muscles) and even mental health concerns all can benefit from the addition of botanical extracts to the daily diet.  Why not create foods and beverages that are not only tasty but functional?

The following are 10 amazing botanicals that should be on the fast track for addition to foods and beverages.  Keep in mind that because botanicals contain multiple nutritional compounds there are multiple areas of health that they can impact.  We can use these crossover points to formulate products that address multiple health concerns and cast a broader net of health.

Amaranth

Amaranth is an exciting grain that has been used for over 8000 thousand years.  It can be prepared in many ways including cooked like pasta or rice, ground into flour, or even popped like corn.  With regards to its impact on health, it is one of the more nutrient-dense grains available. It is higher in minerals, such as calcium, iron, phosphorus, and carotenoids than most vegetables.  Since most minerals are bitter in taste and a challenge to add to food and beverages, amaranth offers a food form that imparts little to no flavor profile to your project. The protein content exceeds that of comparable grains such as oats and rice, which makes it another great protein to consider while formulating. If all this wasn’t enough, the icing on the cake is amaranth is a gluten-free grain.  With its powerful nutritional profile and science to back it up, amaranth can play an important role in foods designed to help those concerned with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

How should we use amaranth? Amaranth can be used as an exceptional thickening agent.  Looking for a healthy snack? Perhaps the popped grain-like rice cakes or incorporate into foods as a flour source.

Aronia

Just like other berries, aronia (chokeberry) is loaded with antioxidants.  Analysis has shown them to be higher than most berries in these beneficial compounds and lower in sugar.  Getting a bit techier, aronia is exceptionally high in both anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins. Whether looking to add an antioxidant to protect your product or enhance the nutritional benefits, aronia would be a strong addition.

On the health impact side of aronia, its high level of antioxidants aronia can provide benefits such as;

  • Reduction of inflammation and C-reactive protein levels
    • Great for cardiovascular health products
  • Improve circulation by strengthening capillary walls
    • Great for vascular health and healing products
  • Inhibit enzymes that break down collagen
    • Great for skin health products

In addition to the known antioxidant benefits, aronia has been shown to help with these areas too:

  • Improve the function of the circulatory, respiratory, and digestive systems
  • Prevent gastric tissue
  • Protect the liver

Artichoke

Whoever looked at an artichoke and decided it was something good to eat should now be considered a genius due to its amazing health benefits.  Artichoke is packed with fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants.  Consuming artichokes and artichoke extract is connected to reducing cholesterol levels, calming inflammation in the body, and improving blood flow.  It can also be used as part of a detoxification product due to its ability to stimulate bile flow in the body.  Increased bile production is also helpful for enabling digestion and helping with the absorption of nutrients. Without proper bile production, many of the essential nutrients and fatty acids are not properly absorbed.

The fiber in artichoke has a prebiotic effect and can help improve gut flora.  Artichoke should be considered in products that would provide benefits to the digestive system.  Additionally, this fiber also provides benefits in weight loss and blood sugar control.  They contain the powerful antioxidant flavonoid silymarin (also found in the herb milk thistle), which has proven health benefits for liver health and protecting the liver from damage. There are obviously many possible applications for the use of artichoke in prepared foods.  In the field of natural medicine, artichokes are most popularly used for their liver, digestive, and cholesterol benefits.

Betula

If there weren’t enough “water” products on the market already, here is another one that should not be overlooked. Better known as birch water, betula is something to be given serious consideration.  The smooth, slightly sweet, thin syrup-like beverage has been consumed as a health tonic in places like Russia, Scandinavia, and the Baltic countries for hundreds of years. It is another great way to add minerals to your product and have them be a food source too!  Betula has calcium, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium, zinc, and iron to lead the way.

The primary health areas to consider when using betula are in the areas of cholesterol, weight loss, liver health, and joint health.  One of the phytochemicals found in betula is known as a saponin helps lower cholesterol.  With regards to weight loss, betula acts more like a detoxifier and helps remove excess salt and other toxins that contribute to fluid retention.  This same effect of removing toxins also reflects well on its ability to support liver health.

Lastly, betula should be considered for products that would benefit joint health due to its anti-inflammatory and detoxification properties.  We know that inflammation is a leading cause of discomfort with joint issues and for some but detoxification often gets overlooked. In the case of betula, it is known to remove uric acid, which can build up in joints after strenuous exercise.  Helping the body’s natural processes of removing/detoxifying excess uric acid would be a great addition to any performance or sports-related products.

Black Cumin Seed (N. sativa)

Black Cumin Seed aka Black Seed has been used for thousands of years for health and medicinal benefits.  N. sativa seeds have been used by various cultures in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle, and the Far East.  These seeds have been used to either flavor foods or as a natural medicine for numerous diseases. The earliest written reference to N. sativa is thought to be in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, where the reaping of Nigella and wheat is contrasted (Isaiah 28: 25, 27.  The many exciting uses of the black seeds have given it the Arabic approbation ‘Habbatul Baraka’, meaning the ‘seed of blessings. There are currently nearly 1000 studies on the healing powers of Black Seeds.  Black seeds use in modern times are mostly in the form of the oil that is extracted from the seeds.  The health benefits of the oil have shown it to support an abundance of health concerns including cardiovascular health, skin health, immune function, liver health, fatty liver, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, weight gain, energy production and so much more.

If you wish to add this to your daily diet, consider using the oil on your salad or in substitution for other oils you would use at room temperature or cold.  Heating the oil will render it less effective.  One thing to keep in mind is the oil has a strong smell and taste which may take some time to get used to.

Elderberry

Elderberry has been used as a supplement in Europe for centuries and now should be considered as an addition to the everyday diet.  In the supplement world, elderberry is most commonly found in immune support supplements for sale during cold and flu season.  In reality, though, elderberry can be used year-round and should be considered a positive addition to any formulation to help in areas other than just immune health.  Other health concerns that can benefit from consuming antioxidants come into play with elderberries such as eye health, cardiovascular, immune, skin, and more should be at the forefront of using elderberry. It has even been shown to help lower cholesterol.

Elderberry is a berry and just like all berries, it has powerful antioxidant properties. In the case of elderberry, the flavor profile is pleasant to the delicate palate like children.  Its dark purple color would act as a great “natural” coloring agent and provide health benefits at the same time.

Fennel

Fennel is a fantastic botanical that needs to be revisited for formulations not only for its fantastic flavor profile but also for the medicinal impact it can have.  One of the largest areas this can be added is to the infant and toddler market.  Just ask any parent of a colicky child and they will give you their right arm if you can provide relief.  Science backs up this claim by showing it can reduce intestinal spasms and colic in infants.  Ancient Chinese medicine found beneficial uses for fennel, from congestion to stimulate the appetite and increase the flow of breast milk.  Essential oil of fennel provides upset stomach relief

Fennel adds a sweetly musky flavor in combination with vegetables such as beets, carrots, and sweet potatoes, with savory roast meats and fish, pasta dishes, and even raw in salads.

Hops

It is easy to have a one-track/beer mind when the word hops are discussed.  Hops have the potential for a large position in the food and beverage arena due to their broad flavor profile and use in the health arena.  Just ask any beer snob and they will tell you the amazing addition the right amount of hops can have on their beer.  The flavor or floral scent of hops should provide added benefits to many food and beverage formulations.

Aside from the flavor and scent of hops, we have some popular areas of health that can be positively impacted by consuming more hops.  Hops are high in essential oils that give them a powerful anti-inflammatory effect and can provide fantastic benefits for joint discomfort or from post-workout inflammation.  Like many botanicals, hops are high in antioxidants.  In natural medicine, hops are primarily used to help relax muscles, reduce stress and help people sleep.  They do not impart a drowsy effect like most ingredients do when used for stress and sleep and therefore should be considered as something that can be used safely and effectively for acute and chronic use.

Rhodiola

If you aren’t familiar with the botanical rhodiola you need to be!  Of the ten botanicals listed, rhodiola could be the biggest player for your formulating wants and needs.  Why? Because rhodiola addresses most of the global health issues and concerns we face.  It has been used in traditional medicine in Russia and the Scandinavian countries for centuries and now modern medicine has proven its benefits.

Rhodiola can calm your body when your system goes into a “fight or flight” mode from everyday stressors.  These days, who doesn’t have stress? When the “stress hormone” cortisol stays high for a long period of time from emotional or physical stress it can cause your body to experience:

  • Lowered blood glucose response
  • Abdominal weight gain
  • Thyroid issues
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Decreased memory
  • Weakened immunity

All of these mentioned above are either an area of focus or risk factor for our major health challenges of this century.  Granted rhodiola is not a cure-all yet should play a role in creating more functional foods and beverages.

For the energy and athletic performance crowd, rhodiola is right up your alley.  Rhodiola can increase stamina and endurance and can dramatically improve an athlete’s performance and delay fatigue.  It also has anti-inflammatory benefits that help with muscle recovery and improve endurance.

If one were looking to hit the mouse with an elephant gun, then rhodiola would be the ammo you are seeking. It either directly or indirectly impacts those health areas that are impacting the majority of the population.

Sceletium

Tribes in Southern Africa have used sceletium for hundreds of years. Its biggest impact on the body would be in the area of stress and anxiety.  Research has shown that it will begin working after the first dose has been taken.  This quick impact is not often seen when we discuss botanicals as they often take weeks and even months to show a benefit or change in health.  Since stress is one of the leading underlying causes of other health issues, having a botanical that helps ease those effects quickly should make this an important choice for those looking to create products with functionality.

Besides the impact on stress and anxiety, sceletium is a mood enhancer, that improves focus, and helps boost energy.  Unlike many botanical ingredients, sceletium can be experienced quickly. Its mood-enhancing, anxiety-reducing, and cognitive function enhancing activities, all of which can be of benefit to healthy people suffering from stress. 

Honorable mention botanicals:

Tiger Nut Flour:  High in minerals and resistant starch.  Great for weight loss, gluten-free, and blood sugar control products.

Lemon Balm: Stress and sleep issues are so popular and this herb helps immensely. It tastes great too.

Seaweed/kelp/dulce: Super high in minerals and one of the highest food sources of Iodine. Great thickener, tastes great, and naturally salty.  Benefits in weight loss, detoxification, and bone and muscle health.

Fenugreek: With a slightly bitter flavor profile like celery seed it can add flavor to many foods.  This herb helps with breast milk production, fights against inflammation, improves digestion, and increases libido in men.

Final Thoughts

When looking into using botanicals in product formulating, we need to focus attention on those ingredients that are patented, trademarked, and have clinical research to prove they work.  Anyone can grind up a plant and sell it, but only those companies committed to quality and efficacious ingredients will take the extra time and financial commitment to stand behind their ingredients.  Not all herbs are created equal and depending on the herb, using the right form, part of the plant, and extraction process can mean all the differences in the world.  If we are going the extra mile to put botanicals into your products, we need to make sure we are using ingredients that are proven to work and in the correct i.e. therapeutic amounts.