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You can hardly open a magazine or newspaper these days without reading about so-called superfoods. Exotic foods such as pomegranate, acai, goji, mangosteen, and spirulina, as well as more-everyday offerings such as blueberry and cranberry, are all being touted as foods that can help prevent disease and slow the aging process. But is there more to these foods than hype? Anecdotal and preliminary scientific evidence point to yes-including indications that they can help prevent cardiovascular disease, a leading killer of individuals over 45 years of age. And those findings are spurring new markets and vehicles to get superfoods and their components out to consumers.
WHAT IS A SUPERFOOD?
Simply put, a superfood is one that is rich in nutrients. "It has higher quantities of nutrients than any other food," says Bob Capelli, vice president of sales and marketing at Cyanotech (Kailua-Kona, HI), a provider of spirulina and astaxanthin. Capelli notes that some foods are known for being high in certain nutrients, like carrots, which are high in beta-carotene. "Gram for gram, superfoods just dwarf them," he says. "The superfoods offer hundreds and sometimes thousands of times more of those compounds per serving."
Navindra Seeram, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island (Kingston, RI) who specializes in the study of higher terrestrial plants and their fruit products, says that these kinds of foods, with an emphasis on superfruits, have great potential for offering health benefits. "The fruits have some basic added bonuses, a triple whammy, if you will, of vitamins, folate, and good fiber," he says. "So, you are getting this big whack of antioxidants and antiinflammatory phytochemicals that can prevent the onset of diseases mediated by inflammation such as heart disease and cancer."
Although unfamiliar fruits such as goji berries and acai may be getting coverage on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the category of superfoods itself isn't that new. "If you go back, a lot of superfruits and superfoods have been in the market for years," says George Pontiakos, president and CEO of BI Nutraceuticals (Long Beach, CA), an ingredients provider that offers superfruit raw materials to beverage, supplement, and food manufacturers. "A superfruit is essentially a newer sound bite for a product that's been around for ages."
And they may not always be exotic. Seeram says that common berries we regularly consume such as strawberries, blueberries, and cranberries are also superfruits. But as individuals immigrate to the United States from countries in South America and Asia, they introduce common foods from home into the American marketplace. And the introduction of these exotic foods coupled with tales of their medicinal and health properties generates a great deal of interest.
"These exotic types of berries are coming into their own in the market because of the aging baby-boomer population," Seeram says. "These older consumers may have a bad relationship with drugs. They may suffer from bad side effects, and so they are now looking for natural foods that go beyond basic nutrition to help them manage diseases."
THE MAKEUP OF A SUPERFOOD
Challenges to marketing Hearth-Healthy Ingredients
We know that heart health is a concern for many individuals and that there is a plethora of ingredients and compounds that can be added to everyday foods to help mitigate that risk. But how can companies get the word out about products that can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease?
Chet Rao, sales and marketing manager for Hormel Ingredients' (Austin, MN) new Eterna omega-3 fish-oil line, says that the health and wellness trend is here to stay, so companies should first and foremost make sure that their foods contain large enough doses to actually deliver the promised benefits.
To help in that area, Hormel is looking at combining proven ingredients to create more efficacious mixes. "We have a proprietary technology that can mix plant sterols and omega-3s that offers a dramatic lowering of bad cholesterol in animals," he says. The company plans to move to human trials soon. But even with this advance, Rao contends that efficacy needs to be backed with education.
"So much depends on how the food industry leverages these effects into properly communicating the benefits," he says.
Pam Stauffer, global marketing and communications manager for Cargill Health and Food Technologies (Minneapolis), manufacturer of the heart-healthy ingredients CoroWise plant sterols and Barley Betafiber, believes that some of that education can come from tightly partnering with customers. "This is a huge opportunity to help consumers find solutions to help them lead longer and healthier lives," she says.
Cargill partners with its food manufacturer customers in educational and healthcare outreach programs. "It's an important aspect of the value proposition," Stauffer contends. "Not just selling an ingredient to deliver a product but also helping to promote it and working with our customers to make it better-it's really a partnership."
But determining what claims companies can make about the effects of heart-healthy ingredients can be a challenge. Pete Willis Sr., marketing manager for DSM Nutritional Products' (Parsippany, NJ) TensGuard ingredient, which helps maintain healthy blood pressure, says that it can be difficult marketing compounds that are not drugs. "We can only claim that TensGuard helps maintain healthy blood pressure within the normal range," he says. "We can't make strong drug claims, of course, because it is not a drug, it is a supplement." Even with strong clinical science behind a particular ingredient, Willis says that communicating the benefit to consumers remains a tough nut to crack.
Stauffer says that one strategy to overcome market challenges is to leverage healthy foods that already have a strong consumer base. "Speaking generally, I think there is a lot of opportunity in products that consumers perceive to be healthy already," she says. "It makes logical sense to add cholesterol-lowering ingredients to these types of products."
TensGuard has the advantage of being an ingredient that can be added easily to almost any food product-unless the product needs to be baked. "It is a protein, so a slight aftertaste may happen from the effects of baking," Willis says. "But there are lots of ways we can put TensGuard into foods to avoid the baking process."
And food technologies are moving in such a way to allow the ubiquitous use of heart-healthy ingredients in the future. Cargill's Barley Betafiber can be used in clear beverages so consumers can grab on-the-go beverages and still get the fiber's cholesterol-lowering effect. Stauffer believes that this kind of malleability will be important to compete. "There will be broader product applications as new ingredients come out with greater functional capabilities," she says.
How do these fruits and foods acquire that "big whack" of nutrients? They build them by protecting themselves from damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation and by trying to propagate their seeds.
"Higher plants were here before man, and they will probably be here after us," says Seeram. "They are rooted, so they can't get up and run away from the stresses they are exposed to every day, such as UV radiation and pests." Because of that immobility, Seeram argues, these plants have evolved over time to make vital nutrients and phytochemicals as a way to protect themselves. Those chemicals were necessary to survive in dense jungles, bright sun, or predator-rich environments. And berries' bright colors, due to chemicals called anthocyanins, are another evolutionary gift that helps them to spread their seeds.
"That bright color is there for a reason," says Seeram. "The plants needed to attract animals to disperse their seeds. The berries are beautiful because the plant wants the birds to come and eat them, then excrete them, so the plant can procreate."
Spirulina developed its increased nutritional value from a similar evolutionary process. The microalgae traditionally grow only in lakes that are high in alkalinity. There are only a few such natural lakes in South America and Africa. But surviving in such a high-pH environment meant that the microalgae needed to produce chemical nutrients to protect themselves. "It's extremely concentrated, with a variety of nutrients at high levels," says Capelli.
SUPERFOODS AND HEART HEALTH
Heart disease is a major concern for many individuals, especially aging populations. Cardiovascular disease is responsible for more deaths than any other cause in industrialized nations. And according to the American Heart Association (Dallas), atherosclerosis, or the accumulation of plaque in arteries, linked to a diet high in cholesterol and fat, is the main culprit behind high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks. With side effects such as headaches, constipation, and dry mouth from common blood-pressure and cardiac medications, many people are looking for alternatives to control their ailments. Since cardiovascular disease has many preventable risk factors, many baby boomers are examining diets and exercise plans to avoid heart problems later in life.
Superfoods include several vital nutrients that are beneficial to the cardiovascular system. Anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid that gives berries and plants their deep color, may help offer protection against heart disease in a number of ways.
First, preliminary research shows that anthocyanins may help fight obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease. A 2004 Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI) study showed that the compounds may boost insulin production, helping individuals maintain a healthy weight. "The mechanisms for this are not too clear," says Seeram. "But there are data that show these compounds to be key players against obesity. There are preliminary data that these pigments could act in this way."
Second, anthocyanins have powerful antioxidant properties that can fight free radicals and inflammation caused by oxidation, or the release of free radical molecules by cells.
"The antioxidants beat up and destroy free radicals, which are unstable oxygen molecules formed during normal bodily processes," says Kevin Busby, general manager of EarthFruits (South Jordan, UT), a supplier of exotic fruit. "Free radicals, if left unchecked, can damage healthy cells and potentially cause health problems."
This is particularly important in terms of cholesterol management, as high cholesterol is another risk factor for cardiovascular disease. "Oxidation is thought to speed up the hardening of the arteries," says Lucien Hernandez, president and CEO of Natreon Inc. (New Brunswick, NJ), a company that develops novel compoundsÃ¢ÂÂbasedÃ¢ÂÂonÃ¢ÂÂtraditional ayurvedic botanicals such as Indian gooseberry. But anthocyanins can help prevent the oxidation of those cholesterol particles.
"The oxidation of high-density lipoproteins and low-density lipoproteins is linked to heart disease," says Seeram. "These cholesterol particles, once they become oxidized, become sticky. They stick in the inside of the arteries, causing atherosclerosis and the hardening of your blood vessels." He adds that the antioxidant properties of anthocyanins help prevent that cholesterol oxidation to improve heart health.
But the effects of superfoods go beyond oxidation. "Superfoods are also antiinflammatories," says Pontiakos. "And inflammation is a significant component of most diseases, including heart disease."
Seeram cautions that some inflammation is a good thing, since it is one of the ways that our bodies naturally fight infection. "But overinflammation triggers a lot of signal pathways that can cause cell damage later down the line," he adds. This overinflammation may also further atherosclerosis.
But superfoods don't only rely on antioxidants for their antiinflammatory effects. Many also have omega-3 compounds or essential fatty acids that aid in the absorption of omega-3s.
"The take-home message is that superfruits have a combination of vital nutrients that together act in a complementary fashion to exert health benefits," says Seeram.
Consistently eating these foods as part of a healthy diet, however, is key. "You are not going to eat a blueberry and be cured of an ailment," says Pontiakos. "The benefits occur over time. It's far more preventative than a tactical addressing of a particular disease."
ARE SUPERFOODS REALLY SUPER?
Some critics maintain that superfoods are more hype than help. They argue that there is not enough science to understand whether the human body really needs or can even process all those nutrients. And even some of the foods' biggest proponents agree that more science is needed.
Jim Saunders, director of tropiceutical sales for GCI Nutrients (Foster City, CA), says that although acai has received a lot of press for its health benefits, much of it is anecdotal. "There are a lot of health claims for acai but not a lot of science to back it up," he says. "We're using borrowed science."
Seeram, whose life's work involves the study of superfruits for potential pharmacological treatments, believes that more hard science claims are forthcoming. "There are not many clinical studies done with these superfoods," he says. "Many consumers make claims on in vitro antioxidant-type power, but few have any clinical data to back it up." However, he cites a recent symposium on berry health benefits as a sign that the current tide is turning. "There is emerging science growing to show that these fruits do have benefits that go beyond basic nutrition."
Capelli believes that superfoods such as spirulina are a phenomenon that should not be ignored. "People can eat a pound of spirulina," he says. "There's no upper limit of toxicity. Sure, it's a little on the expensive side, but 3 grams a day gives you all kinds of benefits."
Hard science or no, the demand for superfoods continues to grow. Moreover, there are new superfruits just waiting for their turn in the spotlight. "Currently, acai is the well-known super fruit," Busby says. "But cupuacu and camu camu will likely be the next superfruit superstars for the supplement and functional food and beverage segment in the near future."
LEVERAGING SUPERFOODS AS FUNCTIONAL INGREDIENTs
Market reports from such companies as Zenith International (Boston), Britvic PLC (Chelmsford, UK), and Packaged Facts (Rockville, MD) show that health and well-being are key factors now in the ingredient market, particularly for the development and enhancement of beverages. These companies predict omega-3 drinks, functional drinks for children, and healthier versions of soft drinks will play a big role in the market's future. And superfoods, particularly superfruits, have the opportunity to play a big role as well.
"We're starting to see superfruits in alcoholic beverages," says Pontiakos. "The reason why is that they are effective. We see the market growing, and we are positioning ourselves to support that growth."
GCI Nutraceuticals plans to form a new company called Nutravita that will market functional beverage lines for both adults and children. "Functional beverages are becoming really hot right now," says Saunders. In addition, the company is involved with a new delivery vehicle called "pop and shake" that it hopes will revolutionize the beverage industry.
"It's a cap that goes on a water bottle," Saunders says. "You press it with your thumb, and the active ingredients are released into the water. It makes it so we don't have to ship water, and consumers can add these micronutrients to their own water."
But the market for superfoods is not limited to drinks. Acai oils can be used in cosmetics to help protect the skin from UV radiation. Consumers can buy spirulina flakes to add to salads or smoothies. Superfoods can be used in teas or other functional foods. And, of course, almost all of the superfoods can also be manufactured in supplement form.
As always, the best way to get your intake of superfoods is to eat the food itself. "Make sure to eat an array of colors," says Seeram. "The way it works is that different foods do different things in different ways. It's not that one is better than another; you need them all."
If fresh fruits or foods are not available, Seeram says that supplementation is also beneficial. "Supplements can provide a good amount of active compounds in a convenient form," he says. "It's not always feasible to drink eight ounces of pomegranate juice. It's not cheap, it may not be available, and you may not like the taste. You can get some of the same nutrients delivered in a supplement. The power is there."