I discovered a few enlightening facts. For one, consumers everywhere are fixated on health and wellness. Second, U.S. dairy processors are right on track with formulating foods for today's consumer. But lastly, we are a few years behind.
Here's a quick overview of three key ingredients that overseas' product developers are aggressively pursuing in their formulating. If you are interested in taking the lead in domestic efforts to give today's consumers what they want, you may want to track down suppliers of these ingredients and get busy in the lab.
1. Aloe Vera. The aloe vera plant is only one of more than 300 species of the aloe plant. A member of the lily family, aloe vera goes by the botanical name of Aloe barbadensis miller. Because it is the most useful of all aloe species, it is also simply called aloe vera.
The aloe vera plant resembles the agave plant, but the two are not related. The aloe vera plant has fleshy, viscous leaves that store large amounts of water, as well as many essential nutrients and active ingredients. It is these components that have given aloe vera the nickname of "healing plant."
The gel from aloe vera plant leaves has been said to possess anti-aging powers, as it has been shown to directly encourage tissue regeneration. And, because aloe is a succulent, it helps maintain the natural moisturizing agents in the skin, thus helping retard the natural evaporative process and even drawing moisture from the atmosphere.
Aloe vera is also associated with boosting the immune system. Aloe vera is said to calm and tone the digestive system. In fact, similar to certain fibers, aloe vera has been shown to act as a prebiotic, enhancing the growth of the good bacterial population in the gastrointestinal tract.
Possessing a distinctive sweet, somewhat citrus flavor profile, aloe vera can be used to add sweetness to products. This is helpful when formulating products for diabetics, as aloe vera is said to counter excessively high blood sugar levels.
More than 50 years ago, gel from the aloe vera plant started being processed and marketed as a drink. Today, that same gel is used as an ingredient in other foods, with cultured dairy beverages and yogurts a popular vehicle in Japan and throughout Europe.
2. Cranberry. The world's first fruit health claim has been accepted by the French government's food safety authority (AFSSA) for none other than the American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocaron). The claim, approved in April, states that the fruit can "help reduce the adhesion of certain Escherichia coli bacteria to the urinary tract wall." Products must carry at least 36mg of the cranberry's proanthocyanins to carry the claim. Other health petitions to AFSSA are expected to follow soon and will focus on how cranberries prevent stomach ulcers, remove mouth bacteria and fight plaque.
In the United States, the National Institutes of Health is conducting its own research on the American cranberry. It is expected that FDA will be petitioned for a qualified health claim some time in 2006.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. According to market researcher Frost & Sullivan, omega-3 fatty acids are the most promising functional food ingredient in Europe. (My guess is the same holds true in the United States.)
Sound scientific research on the component parts-DHA and EPA-of omega-3s, which has emerged in recent years, coupled with improved formulation capabilities are convincing dairy foods formulators to add omega-3 fatty acids to their wares. Japanese dairies have been adding omega-3s to fluid milk and yogurt products for some time, and this is expected to be an innovation opportunity over the next few years throughout the European Union.
Most likely U.S. developers will pursue this ingredient first over aloe vera and cranberry, as FDA just approved a qualified health claim on fish oils. The greatest obstacle is incorporating omega-3s into foods without risking off-flavor or rancidity. Fortunately, cultured dairy products are an ideal carrier for microencapsulated omega-3s because of their refrigerated storage temperature requirements, relatively short shelflife and strong acidic and sour flavor profile.
We can learn a great deal from monitoring the global dairy marketplace. Now let's bring some of these concepts to fruition.