CHICAGO — The embrace of “food as medicine” is growing, with marketers exploring the use of health claims and “functional suggestions” that speak to consumers who are pursuing holistic health. For many, diet has become intentional. If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, what other foods have attributes that may contribute to healthy living?

“Category innovation will need to cater to interest in evergreen health and wellness concepts by encouraging frequent consumption for long-term benefit,” said Doug Resh, director-commercial marketing, T. Hasegawa USA, Cerritos, Calif. “These efforts can be balanced by innovation that plays to interest in trendy health and wellness concepts that provide immediate or short-term benefits.

“Connecting functional claims to broader and even preventative health measures will afford consumers a sense of empowerment in their routine wellness efforts. Educating users on health and wellness benefits can create intentionality among users to incorporate ingredients into their daily diet.”

Mr. Resh explained that top-tier functional ingredients are mainstream. The most recognized is caffeine, followed by blueberries and spinach, then electrolytes, antioxidants, probiotics and added protein, according to a survey of 2,000 internet users aged 18 or older conducted by Kantar Profiles/Mintel in December 2022.

“While their functionality may be a known added benefit, they may not always be the intentional catalyst to consumption,” Mr. Resh said. “Yet these subliminal added benefits can distinguish a brand from its competitors. This is a valuable status to secure, and it can come through education and efficacy grounded in scientific validity, but do not discount the impact of taste.

“While coffee drinkers may routinely wake up to the expected energy boost, or salad fans may enjoy superfoods rich with antioxidants, the majority of consumers make food and drink choices based primarily on taste. Conversely, nascent functional ingredients, like prebiotics, melatonin or adaptogens, may be sought for their benefits among their niche audiences. They can still benefit from positive promotion coupled with pairings with familiar flavors.”

Powerhouse micronutrients

Many of the functional ingredients that emerged in the supplement space are transitioning to food and beverage as research shows supplements may not provide the health benefits that they often are promoted to do in humans. Scientists found adequate intake of certain nutrients was associated with a reduced risk of death by any cause, but the benefit was only present if the nutrients were consumed in food sources. When the same nutrients were taken in the form of a supplement, the lower risk of death disappeared.

“One thing that is clear (from these results) is that dietary supplement use is not a substitute for a healthy balanced diet,” said Fang Fang Zhang, senior author of “Association Among Dietary Supplement Use, Nutrient Intake and Mortality Among US Adults,” which was published in on April 9, 2019. Dr. Zhang is an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.

“You cannot supplement your way to health,” said Elizabeth Klodas, MD, a Minneapolis-based practicing cardiologist, who launched Step One Foods, Eden Prairie, Minn., in 2013 after seven years of product development. “The delivery vehicle is as important as the nutrient itself.”

Some of the micronutrients becoming popular in new product development are botanicals, some of which are described as adaptogens, as well as nootropics. The latter is a term with the Greek translation of “toward the mind” and refers to compounds that may directly or indirectly influence cognitive brain function. Examples include ashwagandha, citicoline and green tea extract.

Adaptogens, on the other hand, are a class of non-toxic herbs, mushrooms and minerals promoted to boost the immune system and help the body fight the effects of stress. The plant-based compounds have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions. Ginseng, for example, is said to regulate the body’s response to physical or mental stress.

With these ingredients, proper dosing is necessary for the consumer to reap any purported benefits, which is why most applications are sold as individual servings in order to guarantee a specified amount of the compound. Beverages are the most common delivery vehicle, provided the ingredients properly dissolve and are dispersed into a homogenous fluid. With solid applications, there’s always the possibility of uneven dispersion. Yet, it is easier to hide and mask any off flavors in solids.

“Botanicals support not only wellness desires, but they also add premiumization to products,” said Jeff Hodges, manager-bakery, snacks and confections applications, ADM, Chicago. “Our standardized and proprietary botanicals include various extracts like green tea, acerola and guarana, as well as antioxidant blends that contain vitamin C, beta-carotene and anthocyanins. We can combine these with our plant protein range of soy, pea, wheat, ancient grains, nuts, beans and pulses to maximize ingredient diversity and optimize functionality for fortified bakery goods and snacks.”

John Quilter, vice president-global proactive health portfolio, Kerry, Beloit, Wis., said ayurvedic ingredients like ashwagandha are growing in popularity as a source of science-backed brain health benefits in foods.

Postbiotics are a new category in the functional ingredient space. They do away with the need to add probiotics by being the healthy metabolites that the microbiome produces, the compounds that possess the actual health benefit. The ingredients include an array of enzymes, peptides, organic acids, fatty acids and more. Cargill, Minneapolis, offers a postbiotic derived from the fermentation of baker’s yeast.

“As shown through our stability testing, our postbiotic is highly heat stable, can handle varying pH levels and offers up to a three-year shelf life,” said Jenna Nelson, channel lead-food and beverage, Cargill. “This stability is due in large part to its inanimate nature. There is no concern about the efficacy of the ingredient dying or being ‘killed off’ in processing.”

San Diego-based Geno develops and scales sustainable materials derived from plant-based feedstocks instead of fossil fuels. The company has entered the functional foods space with a natural (R)-1,3 butanediol that is a palatable, affordable and effective ketogenic ingredient, said Terry Kitagawa, nutrition product development manager. It offers a fast and easy way to raise beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) ketone levels, the primary energy source made in the body during ketosis.

Studies have shown ketone supplementation elevates BHB levels, providing a readily available energy source that may help boost mental clarity and athletic performance. The self-affirmed Generally Recognized as Safe ingredient helps companies bring the benefits to a wider consumer audience by fueling everyday and high-performance activities anywhere without the need for a restrictive diet or prolonged fasting. Applications include beverages, bars and gels. The ingredient is made from plant sugars using Geno’s fermentation process.

Formulating for functionality

VitaNav Inc., Washington, uses (R)-1,3 butanediol in Kenetik, a ketone energy drink shown to increase brain activity associated with focus and creativity by 17%, according to the company. Kenetik contains no sugar or caffeine and is flavored with fruit and sweetened with allulose and stevia.

MOSH bars are “protein bars made for your brain,” said Maria Shriver and Patrick Schwarzenegger, mother and son, and co-founders of the Los Angeles-based company. MOSH bars contain seven nutrients associated with brain health — lion’s mane, ashwagandha, medium chain triglyceride oil, omega-3 fatty acids, collagen and vitamins B12 and D3 — among other nutrients.

Ms. Shriver and Mr. Schwarzenegger partnered with brain health researchers and nutritionists to formulate the bars, as studies show nutrition plays a role in delaying or preventing cognitive decline. The bars join a growing list of functional foods and beverages formulated to address various health and wellness concerns through nutrition.

At Step One Foods, heart health is the target attribute. Dr. Klodas founded Step One Foods because she believes in whole foods as functional ingredients. She uses oat bran, chia and flax seeds, dried fruits and nuts, to provide fiber, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids in the formulation. She puts the whole food ingredients together and then fortifies them with plant sterols.

“It’s the whole package,” she said. “The totality of nutrition. Take the powerful blueberry, which is packed with vitamin C, along with many micronutrients. When consumed, the body recognizes the vitamin C in this context. But if you take a vitamin C supplement and eat a Twinkie, the body does not know what to do with the vitamin C.”

All Step One Foods — bars, pancake mix, sprinkles and smoothie mix — are clinically formulated to block cholesterol absorption and reabsorption in the digestive system, actively reducing the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream.

“These foods are properly dosed,” Dr. Klodas said. “A person should have two servings, spread throughout the day, to be most effective. In 30 days, they should experience a measurable response.”

The only isolated functional ingredient used in the formulation is plant sterols. This is in order to provide 1 gram in each food serving.

“This is the clinically therapeutic level, and one impossible to achieve through foods alone,” Dr. Klodas said.

Beverages with benefits

Functional foods come in a variety of formats; however, the No. 1 delivery vehicle are beverages. Juices and smoothies with vitamins and antioxidants fueled the trend, which is now led by energy, with immunity gaining momentum.

Consumer preferences for “added functional benefits” vary by gender. Skin support was important to 58% of women vs. 44% of men, while muscle recovery was important to 44% of men vs. 35% of women, according to Kerry’s “Functional Forecasting: The Role and Relevance of Health-Enhancing Ingredients in Beverages and Supplements” report. Immune support, however, was universal, with 53% saying they would drink beverages that contained ingredients specific to immune support.

It should come as no surprise many juices and smoothies are now adding functional ingredients that support immunity. Uncle Matt’s Organic, Clermont, Fla., for example, is introducing Ultimate Wellness Juice Shots in two varieties, both containing probiotics, vitamins C and D, and zinc. The “Defense” variety combines orange and pineapple juices with 500 mg of turmeric, along with black pepper, which has been shown to assist with turmeric absorption. “Immune” is orange juice formulated with black elderberries.

“Today’s consumer is looking to beverages as a convenient and tasty way to supplement key nutrients,” said Matt McLean, founder and chief executive officer of Uncle Matt’s Organic.

Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Co., Fort Pierce, Fla., is preparing to launch fresh-squeezed tomato juice enhanced with reishi mushrooms. The reishi mushroom is associated with a variety of health benefits, including boosting the immune system and reducing depression and fatigue, among others.

The functional, perishable juice joins others from the company, such as Resilient Juice, which is an immune-system focused blend of blood oranges, elderberry, turmeric and ginger, and Aura Juice, which is a blend of blood orange juice and strawberry puree enhanced with ashwagandha.

“Consumers are thirsty for even more,” Mr. Resh of T. Hasegawa USA said. “They are seeking easy and versatile ways to achieve health goals through meals, snacks and anything in between.”