Blueberries, aloe vera, green tea, and even dark chocolate, among hundreds of other fruits, vegetables and herbs, benefited from their nutrition attributes for the human body, and have been bestowed the title of “superfoods.” Beverage categories from enhanced bottled waters, juices, and even alcohol beverages have featured the nutrient-laden superheroes. While superfoods’ attributes still are being studied by researchers, consumers are readily picking up products with them for several reasons.
“In the eyes of a consumer, superfoods are basically any food with demonstrated health benefits â€” like any functional food, they offer something beyond basic nutrition,” says Karl Crawford, business development leader for health and food at HortResearch, Auckland, New Zealand, and co-author of “Successful Superfruit Strategy: How to Build a Superfruit Business.” “However, I’m not sure that consumers accept a fortified food as being ‘super.’ I think that they have an expectation that the benefit is inherent to the [fruit] product.”
Although no definition of superfoods exists, consumers look for particular attributes that infer “superior,” says Jeff Wuagneux, president and chief executive officer of RFI Ingredients, Blauvelt, N.Y.
“First, of course, the food has to have high nutrient and phytochemical content,” he says. “Second, there’s a perception that superfoods are often foods that are exotic, and often foreign, not the run-of-the mill foods, that we eat today. Although such ‘normal’ foods can be superfoods â€” blueberries, for instance â€” I believe the consumer is looking for something new and unique, something that they haven’t heard of before. And if a superfood comes with a long culinary tradition from some far-away culture where the indigenous people tend to live longer than most other cultures, the consumer really notices that.”
Consumers also are looking for energy and wellness properties in their superfoods, says Lucien Hernandez, president of Natreon Inc., New Brunswick, N.J. But “stress relief, cognition and healthy weight management are up and coming big ones as well,” he says. “At the same time, and perhaps unrealistically, consumers want rapid feedback on health benefits.”
Many consumers are confused as to how superfoods differ from functional foods in terms of their positive affects on health. “Superfoods” is essentially used as a marketing tool to differentiate better-for-you products, says Trina O’Brien, marketing and public relations manager for GTC Nutrition, Golden, Colo.
“Consumers are increasingly demanding natural, proactive health and wellness solutions,” she says. “Superfoods, by marketing promise, aim to deliver these solutions whether from the food source itself, or through innovative ingredient technologies.”
For a superfood to find success, beverage- and food-makers need an ingredient to meet certain criteria before it becomes established as a superfood. For example, in Crawford’s and co-author Julian Mellentin’s book “Successful Superfruit Strategy,” the two outlined six criteria â€” novelty, health benefits, convenience, sensory excellence, controlled supply and promotion â€” for superfruit success and to build a “super reputation,” Crawford says.
“Consumers are really looking for the first four criteria in that list: novelty, health benefits, convenience and sensory excellence,” he says. Whether real or perceived, health benefits are a crucial factor for consumers. “They all know some foods are better for them than others,” Crawford says. “What makes a superfood is proof. However, in this instance ‘proof’ is flexible. It can be direct proof from scientific study or ‘proof’ inferred by common acceptance.
“Either way, the health benefit must be specific to a particular health concern â€” say, kiwifruit for gut health â€” or, if a general benefit, must be above that already expected from that type of food.”
For beverages, the superfoods trend is being driven by superfruits.
“Crucially, fruit is also about the only food that consumers still perceive as ‘natural’ when it has been processed,” Crawford says. “Consumers believe fruit is better when processed. This has massive benefits for those in the superfoods trade because it opens up a host of new possibilities. You can deliver to your customer all the benefits they demand from fruit â€” taste, health, etc. â€” with none of the side effects that make handling fresh fruit inconvenient â€” limited shelf life, for example.”
An added bonus for beverages is that mainstream consumers even seem to accept new fruits as juices that they would not buy as fresh fruit, Crawford says. “Just look at the growth rate of pomegranate juice,” he says. “It’s the hottest juice on the planet, selling in the millions of liters in cafés, juice bars, supermarkets and convenience stores, but you’d be hard pressed to sell the whole fruit anywhere outside of a dedicated health food retailer.”
The consumer has become more educated about superfruits over time because of issues that are “plaguing” the industry, such as weather, food safety, security and health, says Don Giampetro, Lawrenceville, N.J.-based iTi Tropicals Inc.’s vice president of sales.
“It seems like the people with more expendable income have more of an interest because they can go and afford to buy the product that is $4 for a bottle rather than being $1 for a bottle,” he says.
And while all these superfoods have the potential of being beneficial to one’s health, beverage manufacturers have to be careful on the regulatory side regarding what can and can’t be said on a label. “You can’t make a claim,” Giampetro says.
No matter how healthy a superfood is, consumers also want foods that taste good. “When you look at something like noni, which does not have a pleasant taste, when you look at something like acai, which is really an acquired kind of taste, and, mangosteen with the white part that actually tastes pretty good, but then when you start adding the pericarp [rind] back, which has all the xanthones in it, the product doesn’t taste so hot,” Giampetro says. “You have to really formulate to make these products consumer friendly.”
But Giampetro sees an issue with companies treating superfoods as a marketing tool. For example, a company will use a small amount mangosteen, put mangosteen’s picture on the label and promote the product as mangosteen juice, he says.
“Really, in that bottle, there is no benefit at all…” Giampetro says. “Someone is trying to sell a 99 cent 16-ounce bottle beverage, and believe me, it’s going to have apple juice, water, color and maybe it’ll have a drop of this or that, or maybe it will just have the flavor of that superfruit they are marketing.”
“If you can get measured functionality out of these beverages, that’s what people are looking for rather than just consuming something,” he adds.
An additional problem that derives from marketing beverages as containing superfruits without a significant amount of the fruit itself is that consumers don’t really know what the superfruit is supposed to taste like, Giampetro says.
In the superfruits market in beverages, acai is a driver, but mangosteen, coconut water, camu camu, cocoa fruit, umbu, cupuacu, gac fruit, cili fruit and goji berry are all of interest to iTi’s customers.
“If there is a story to tell on the product, that’s what is driving that trend in beverage,” he says. Consumers see a new superfruit while they are traveling or in the media, and then begin to look for products that contain that ingredient. That’s what’s driving them to seek out these finished items, Giampetro says.
EarthFruits, South Jordan, Utah, which also operates an office in Belem, Brazil, on the northeast side of the Amazon rainforest, mainly exports acai from Brazil, but acerola is also gaining speed. In addition, the company offers camu camu, cupuacu, Amazon soursop, murici, cashew fruit, pink guava and passion fruit, and continues to pursue more fruits in the Amazon.
“You never know what the market will take as far as a new fruit is concerned, because you know maybe the flavor is a little too new and people aren’t familiar with the flavor or the color or the taste,” says Kevin Busby, general manager of EarthFruits.
The sheer number of superfruits and the opportunities for combinations in beverages across categories provides an opening for creative formulations.
Feeling that two superfruits are better than one, Natreon conducted a study in superfruit formulation analyzing in vitro and ex vitro assays points. According to the study, Capros, developed from the Indian gooseberry, shows potential as a synergistic antioxidant ingredient in combination with other fruit juices and extracts. Natreon’s study specifically researched Capros combined with pomegranate fruit extracts and juices, and found that Capros and pomegranates could achieve antioxidant levels higher than the individual compounds when used separately.
Another formulation opportunity for superfruits in beverages is to clarify them. A trend is developing in energy drinks, sparkling beverages, enhanced or flavored bottled waters, RTD teas and juices, particularly in the children’s market, to clarify the superfruits. Clarifying superfruits is a pretty arduous task, Giampetro says. Once the superfruit is clarified though, the issue of what affect this has on the nutritious content of the fruit is raised, he says.
EarthFruits also is seeing a trend of beverage-makers wanting to clarify juices, removing all the fats and fibers, and focusing on a fruit’s antioxidants or Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) value.
“If you are buying a premium smoothie or fruit drink, you’re used to or expect to see different clumps of fiber or separation,” Busby says. “Consumers who buy those don’t seem to have a problem with it. But in the mainstream, I believe that it’s more commonly accepted to see juice being clear or even lighter in color.
“I think most consumers don’t seem to realize when they are buying these clarified juices, where a lot of the fruit is taken out, you’re still getting benefit, but Iâ€ˆbelieve you get more when you try to stay as close to the fruit as when it’s picked.”
Superfruits aren’t the only standout superfoods making their way into beverages. Green tea and even red, oolong and white are considered popular superfoods by consumers because of the tea leaves’ antioxidant content. With the popularity of energy drinks, natural energy-enhancing ingredients such as yerba maté also are seeing increased demand.
“A combination of yerba maté, with its natural caffeine and other natural stimulant compounds, plus its natural antioxidant power from polyphenols, is a perfect example of a beverage ingredient for the energy market that goes beyond the synthetic caffeine buzz,” Wuagneaux says.
While some consumers are looking for products to contain energy to keep them going, others are looking for stress relievers. Natreon’s Essentra, a patented extract derived from the Ashwagandha herb, is thought to shield the body against the negative effects of stress, the company says.
Additionally, green superfoods, such as cereal grasses (wheat, barely and alfalfa grasses) and algae products (spirulina and chlorella) are appearing more in beverages. Proving the kind of superfoods greens can be, RFI’s Organic Spirulina contains protein, chlorophyll, carotenoids, phycocyanins, phosphorous, potassium, manganese, calcium, chromium, magnesium, iron, zinc and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12 and E.
Prebiotics, probiotics, vegetables, nuts and soy are also superfood ingredients appearing in beverages. GTC Nutrition provides NutraFlora short-chain fructooliogoccharides, a prebiotic fiber; BioAgave, an agave fiber; and Aquamin calcified mineral source.
With the popularity of health and wellness, the growth of superfoods is expected to continue. But Hort- Research’s Crawford believes the market is going to see many new ingredients without or demonstrated benefits.
“I’d like to see informed product development â€” creativity that opens new categories â€” not just adds a few cents value to an old idea.” BI