Claims made for foods and beverages that can improve mind and body functions – and bolster their defences – have proliferated against the backdrop of Covid-19 and, in that regard, adaptogens are increasingly being discussed.
Adaptogens are plants, herbs and fungi that have been used for centuries in Asian health and nutrition traditions as a stress reducer.
Indeed, ingredients such as ashwagandha, maca, cordyceps and holy basil have been linked to a number of benefits – ashwagandha aiding sleep, for example. There is also crossover with nootropics, with some ingredients being linked to boosting brain power.
So far, adaptogens have mainly been found in beverages or in powder and pill form but, as with nootropic ingredients, they are slowly starting to cross over into food items, such as trail mixes and granola.
Interest on the rise
As often with wonder ingredients, the science behind the functional claims made for them can be a little unclear – even more so when they are altered in the process of creating a packaged food product – but many of these claims date back centuries and there is no doubt interest in adaptogens is on the increase as the consumer focus on health and wellbeing shows no sign of abating.
Adaptogens were mentioned as part of one of US grocery chain Whole Foods Market’s top ten food trend predictions for 2021.
The retailer said: “The lines are blurring between the supplement and grocery aisles and that trend will accelerate in 2021. Suppliers are incorporating functional ingredients like vitamin C, mushrooms and adaptogens to foster a calm headspace and support the immune system. For obvious reasons, people want this pronto.”
The trend has also been picked up by Irish food and ingredients firm Kerry Group.
Leigh Anne Vaughan, senior global marketing director at the company, said: “Many of these ingredients are linked to consumers’ perceptions of stress management and need for more peace and relaxation in their lives. Adaptogens such as maca, rosemary and ginseng are some adaptogens listed as emerging and up-and-coming flavours across a number of categories in our 2021 taste charts. Ashwagandha and ginseng were also called out as popular healthy halo flavours in our recent taste trends report.”
Fellow Ireland-based ingredients firm Glanbia told Just Food it is planning to launch a new ingredient in this area.
Glanbia’s research showed the growth of supplements for sleep support/mental health is forecast to be 30% between 2020-2023.
But, although the challenges created by the pandemic could be favourable for products containing adaptogenic ingredients, a number of questions remain.
Do the claims for these ingredients stack up? How widely might they be used in processed food products? And what barriers are there to their use on a large scale?
In terms of adaptogens’ bona fides, Hamish Renton, managing director at UK-based international food and drink consultancy HRA Global, is in no doubt.
“There are proven benefits. The bio-chemistry stacks up,” he says. “They do a whole bunch of things. While nootropics enhance what you’ve got, adaptogens are a bit more flexible. They seem to benefit the body at multiple times and in multiple ways. They are like the Swiss army knife of plant-medicine.
“I take codryceps pre-workout and its really good with coffee. It’s a stimulant but it doesn’t have a come down or make you jittery. It definitely works, as does ashwagandha for sleep.
“You need to take these things for a while for a compound effect. You can’t feel it like a Red Bull. This stuff is really subtle.”
US nutritionist and entrepreneur Binay Curtis is also convinced by the claims made for adaptogens.
“Throughout my studies and work as a nutritional therapy practitioner, I have found that adaptogens can work effectively for most bodies. For example, ashwagandha, a very popular adaptogen, can help the body rest, relax or recharge, based upon what your body needs. In many cases, it can help reduce stress,” she says.
“Studies have shown that adaptogens can help the body heal, relieve stress and most importantly, adapt to what the body wants it to do, but the mind sometimes will not allow us to do on our own.”
But the way in which most users consume these products at the moment remain in powder or pill form, or in drinks – US-based alt-dairy company Califia Farms offers a Mushroom Oat Barista blend milk alternative, for example.
One company active in this area is Canada-based Rritual Superfoods, which offers adaptogenic products based on mushrooms in the US.
Director of marketing Peter Palarchio says: “People are interested in natural remedies for things like immune support, anxiety and sleeplessness. They have changed their habits forever. Health and wellness has longevity.
“Mushroom is our hero ingredient but we also use a lot of adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha.”
Rritual’s products, sold in powder form online and via specialist health retailers such as CVS Stores, include Chaga Immune. The powder contains adaptogens eleuthero root and astragalus to support healthy immune function. Another product, Lion’s Mane Focus, has adaptogens rhodiola rosea root and bacopa to support brain health and cognitive function. A third, Reishi Relax, contains ashwagandha and cacao to, the company says, help the body adapt to stress.
“It’s a great entry to the market. It’s great in coffee, tea and smoothies,” Palarchio adds.
“I think the natural launchpad for this is the local barista. We are not far away from things like lion’s mane latte.”
The potential for adaptogens in packaged food
The leap to packaged food items seems a large one for many firms operating in this field and to market watchers.
HRA Global’s Renton says: “I’m struggling to see their use in anything more than we’ve already got. People who know about it take the powder. The trouble is when you cook, boil or bake them in you run the risk of de-naturing them. Maybe it enhances their effectiveness but I suspect not. We don’t know.
“Mushrooms and coffee go well together. Chocolate is a good carrier as well. I think going beyond that it’s an acquired taste.
“I just think at the moment they are a little bit racy. They are in that plant-medicine bucket and people who buy them don’t like processed foods. They are not looking for a convenient, portable solution.”
Renton’s point about the ingredients potentially being degraded if turned into processed food products is echoed by Curtis.
“If any food is cooked, adaptogens will be compromised. One wants to eat it in its most rare form possible,” she says.
“Mushrooms, for example, can be used as an adaptogen but, the more it’s processed, the less effective it will be for the body.”
Renton also believes cost would be a factor deterring food manufacturers from loading products with adaptogens.
“A lot of this comes from India and China so the supply chain is a bit opaque. It can cost at least GBP100 (US$138.42) a kilo,” he says. “The temptation is to put a sniff in so you can put it on the label.”
But he does not see the use of adaptogens in packaged food happening on a large scale.
“Jumping to a bar, say, is a big leap,” he says. “It’s one to watch but not a gold rush.”
But there are a few outliers. One company that has produced food items based on adaptogens is US-based Toodaloo.
The Texas business, founded by Cattie Khoury, manufactures branded trail mixes based on adaptogenic ingredients.
Khoury said: “I started playing around with different ingredients and adaptogens in my kitchen last year during the quarantine and Toodaloo was born out of that experimentation to help restore balance to our bodies and our planet with snacks made with clean ingredients and functional superfoods.”
But she admits that it was difficult creating a food product based on adaptogens.
“It took a lot of tinkering to find the right balance of herbs. Some herbs are extremely potent and many of them don’t necessarily taste very good. There were some recipes that had to be scrapped altogether, and probably for the best,” she says.
“Some of the herbs, such as chaga or cordyceps, aren’t as strong so they blend really easily. However, the taste of some herbs like ginseng are almost impossible to mask. Sometimes, I will fall in love with the function of a herb like ginseng but there simply isn’t a way to infuse it in a tasty way.”
Khoury doesn’t see adaptogens as being faddish, given the way people’s attitude to health and wellness have been shaped in the last year or so.
“I think we will continue to see an emphasis on adaptogens and products with these ingredients in them in the future, as well as a trend of conscious consumers really paying attention to every ingredient that is in their food,” she says.
“I don’t see the adaptogen trend slowing down at all. More and more, we are seeing not only products with adaptogens as their main source, but a [greater] variety of products.