With consumers focused on immune health, adaptogens take center stage
In the wellness space of food and beverages, adaptogens are a hot commodity. In 2020, PepsiCo announced the launch of Driftwell, a functional water containing L-theanine, an amino acid some studies say helps with relaxation. Then in May, it announced the launch of Soulboost, a functional sparkling water brand — two flavors contain panax ginseng, which the company says boosts mental stamina.
PepsiCo isn’t the only CPG giant to experiment with adaptogens. Earlier this year, Mondelēz rolled out a line of nut butters featuring reishi mushrooms, Millie Gram, which its website says promotes “well-being and longevity.”
An innovation director for the company’s SnackFutures division, Gil Horsky, told Food Business News that adaptogens are beginning to move from the functional space into the snacks category. Until the pandemic, mostly smaller upstarts and brands with a health focus were utilizing adaptogens, but heightened consumer interest in immunity-boosting products has been driving the category’s growth since 2020. The global market for products containing adaptogens is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8.55% by 2025, according to Research and Markets.
Adaptogens, commonly used in Asia for centuries, are a collection of herbs, fungi and plants that have a vast array of therapeutic effects shown to have the potential of lowering a person’s stress level, according to Kantha Shelke, a food ingredients researcher at IFT. While a definitive list of adaptogens is disputed, Shelke said they are commonly sourced from an array of plants — from ashwagandha to rhodiola and schisandra to reishi. Chaga and turmeric are also popular.
Formulation is key to improving taste and functionality
The herbs have primarily been used in functional drinks and powders so far, with upstarts ruling the segment typically. Superfood company Rritual is considered a leader in the space with its reishi and chaga blends that the company says promote relaxation and immunity, respectively. But they are beginning to be utilized in other areas, like snacks and packaged food.
What companies need to consider, however, is that some of these ingredients, such as mushrooms and ashwagandha, can introduce a bitter taste to food, culinary expert Olivia Roskowski of the Institute of Culinary Education said in a blog post. Smart formulators are able to curb this, Shelke said, as some coffee, chocolates and teas that naturally have a bitter or astringent taste can help mask the unappealing tastes of some adaptogens. For example, chaga, a mushroom powder, pairs well with dark chocolate brownies, Roskowski said.
The “newness” of the ingredients to some companies, however, means they may not be as adept at blending them into foods and beverages in a way that retains their benefits, Shelke added. For example, she said there are turmeric-based tea mixes that “do nothing” because the curcuminoids from the ingredient are not soluble in water.
“Formulating foods and beverages delivering the health benefits of adaptogens requires a sound foundation of the fundamentals of food and beverage formulation, and an in-depth understanding of the physical, biochemical and physiological properties of the adaptogen under consideration,” Shelke said.
The pandemic and ensuing stress made consumers turn to supplements that specifically helped them relax and sleep, according to Nipen Lavingia, a brand innovation advisor at Arjuna Natural, an India-based provider of adaptogenic herbs.
One of the most prominent adaptogens, ashwagandha, has been used by suppliers like Arjuna in a variety of applications, including teas, coffee and kombucha. It is an ancient root originating from India traditionally used for digestion. Its extract, called Shoden, has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, which control how the body reacts to stress, Lavingia said.
“I’m constantly hearing people say, ‘Take adaptogens to eliminate stress!’ Like taking an herb will get rid of your marital problems. Adaptogens can only help make your body more resilient to the effects that stress has on it.”
Health-Ade, a leader in kombucha, released a line of its beverages with added adaptogenic ingredients such as turmeric, named Health-Ade Plus, in July 2020. Health-Ade, however, declined to comment on how the Plus line has performed in sales compared to the company’s flagship kombucha.
Daina Trout, the company’s CEO, said kombucha itself has adaptogenic properties. Some of the properties in the beverage that make it similar to adaptogens, she said, are acids; among them, maoic and gluconic, the latter of which has liver benefits and impacts stress. She said the company is aware its consumers are wellness-conscious, and incorporates adaptogens into its blends to meet that demand.
“I think the way I like to think about adaptogens is that [they are] strong enough to actually have an impact on a health system,” Trout said. “We add functional ingredients on top of the kombucha to give an even stronger effect.”
Coffee brand Four Sigmatic started implementing functional mushroom adaptogens into its blends because of their immune benefits, according to CEO Tero Isokauppila, who hails from Finland. It uses chaga, a fungi used in Nordic folk medicine, and reishi, which has a history of medicinal use in China, he said.
“Because we use extracted fruiting bodies of the mushrooms, the potency is very high, and you only need a small amount for an effective dose,” Isokauppila said. “Our coffee tastes just like regular, high-quality coffee, not like mushrooms.”
Canadian wellness superfood company Joya implements reishi and ashwaganda into its “elixir blend” drinks, sold as a powder that can be mixed into water, which it calls “the love-child of your favorite latte and a magical wellness potion.” The company, which also makes chocolate with purported functional benefits, details the intended benefits of each ingredient it uses on its website, such as immunity, cognitive function and relaxation. Its founder, Ruth Elnekave, said that adaptogens can’t just be thrown into any foods and have the intended effect.
“Just like you need to work out consistently to get fit and strong, with adaptogens you need to use them consistently for the effects to kind of build and maintain in the body,” Elnekave said.
What does the science say?
Not all experts are convinced of all of the benefits of the ingredients touted by wellness brands. A 2018 study from Chinese Medicine, a medical journal for the International Society for Chinese Medicine, found that there are “very few drugs that have been successfully introduced as adaptogens in modern medicine,” and concluded that understanding the extent of their effects is in its early stage. Academics from the Center for Research on Ingredient Safety at Michigan State University said consumers should approach products with adaptogens with caution, especially if they claim to cure or prevent health ailments like diseases.
“Currently, there is no adequate research to substantiate the efficacy of adaptogen ingredients,” the report reads. “The current research available does not meet the scientific threshold of established pharmacology or medical standards.”
Elnekave said many companies selling products containing adaptogens use language that can be misleading, leading consumers to think it’s a quick-fix to the stressors in their lives.
“I’m constantly hearing people say, ‘Take adaptogens to eliminate stress!’ Like taking an herb will get rid of your marital problems,” Elnekave said. “Adaptogens can only help make your body more resilient to the effects that stress has on it.”
Shelke said that while the adaptogens have shown to have positive benefits, they should not be used as a replacement for medicine or other healthy lifestyle traits. The FDA does not allow products to promote themselves as miracle drugs, and there is not a large amount of science about the efficacy of adaptogens in food matrices, she said.
“‘Foods can help prevent some chronic health issues and diseases, and bolster and assist with healing, but will never be able to provide the focused effects provided by some pharmaceutical preparations,” Shelke said. “Adaptogens in the right format of food and beverage can be the closest thing, but these have yet to be designed and launched in the mainstream marketplace.”