Functional Foods

From probiotic yoghurt drinks to cholesterol-lowering spreads, foods that do ‘something extra’ other than taste good / provide nutrition have been around for some time now.


But the combination of an increased health focus plus the pandemic making consumers look for ways to boost their immune systems has led to a surge in demand for functional foods delivering all manner of benefits.

Functional foods as a category is actually a broad umbrella, encompassing fortified foods (such as cereal with added vitamin D), as well as fruit and vegetables that deliver specific health benefits – you might call them superfoods. Nature is rich in functional foods – virtually every fruit, vegetable, nut and seed has some kind of health benefit, and now smart marketers are shouting out about health benefits that have been there all along, from tomato ketchup that contains lycopene, to oats that may help lower cholesterol.

‘Magic ingredients’ are coming to the fore – think manuka honey, apple cider vinegar. Consumers are increasingly aware of the purported properties of these ingredients and thus including them in a recipe can give a product a sort of healthiness halo.

The term ‘functional foods’ also encompasses what many are now terming nutraceuticals, and this is where the new focus is falling – food categories that a consumer might have purchased anyway, such as ice cream, now with an added health benefit, such as sleep-enhancing properties. And while a nutraceutical product is often more expensive than its common-or-garden alternative, for consumers, they’re still perceived as good value considering what the cost would be to buy an actual pharmaceutical product in addition.

Today’s consumer is not just health-conscious – they’re time-starved. And in a world where people just have too many things to remember to do (take your vitamins, do a meditation), choosing products that fulfil more than one purpose feels like a win. They also save on shopping-time; much quicker (and more contact-free) to grab something from a shelf than consult a doctor or pharmacist. And because they are still essentially food, the products seem low risk, making them seem a safe, easy and appealing option that puts the feeling of control firmly with the consumer.

A broad spectrum of health benefits

Consumers are turning to functional foods for all manner of health benefits, from anti-inflammatories to aiding sleep and boosting metabolism, to promoting good hair, skin and nails, supporting cognitive function, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and lessening cancer risk. Shoppers are seeking out various vitamins, minerals and proteins – particularly the growing vegan base looking to get all the required nutrients in their diet. Heart health, brain health and joint healthcare all being used as USPs, not forgetting the one which has become particularly prominent: gut health.

Gut health has risen to prominence helped along by the pandemic and consumers’ wider interest in immunity-boosting foods. Consumers already had an awareness of immune system boosting foods, but the pandemic elevated this further; if you can’t stop yourself from getting the coronavirus, you want to make sure that you are able to recover from it well. Gut health is also purported to bring benefits for reducing bloating, bowel health and even mental well-being/ mood as well as benefitting coeliac suffers and those with ‘leaky gut’.

Moving beyond the probiotic, we’re seeing an increase in awareness and demand for fibre, prebitoics, synbiotics (containing both pro and pre) and even postbiotics to help develop a healthy digestive microbiome. Once the realm of yoghurt and supplements only, probiotics are becoming increasingly versatile as new hardier bacteria strains are developed which can withstand high temperatures, making them ripe for adding to a wide range of hot foods.

So what are the key areas that are hot right now? Let’s take a look…

Superstar spices

Three spices in particular are now being selected for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and have uses within both sweet and savoury markets. Turmeric, long used in Indian cuisine and as a natural yellow colouring has rocketed in popularity becoming popular in milk drinks, smoothies and many more applications. It is also said to have an anticarcinogenic effect. Cinnamon is also prized for its anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties – it’s also a prebiotic. And lastly, ginger is valued for its impact on digestive and heart health.

Sensational seeds

A great source of vegan protein and omega 3 fatty acids, as well as fibre, seeds have shot up in popularity. Chia seeds in particular are favoured for their beneficial impact on cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure. Flax / linseeds and hemp seeds are another great option (grind for maximum health benefits) as are sesame seeds which provide a distinctive taste. Seeds are a great way to add texture as well as health benefits; they can be toasted to enhance flavour and work well in crunchy coatings.

Foment over ferments

Fermented foods have become incredibly popular due to them being a source of probiotics. Many were previously relatively unknown to most westerners, giving them an exotic appeal for adventurous diners, which quickly led to them becoming buzzy trends. While kombucha lends itself more naturally to beverages, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and even kefir cheese are all easy to add into menus in burgers and other quick service items.

Pulse power

Atkins and keto diets put much focus on quality proteins – add plant-based and adventurous eating into the mix and you’ve got a need for alternative vegan proteins. Enter high-protein legumes like pigeon/gungo peas, borlotti/cranberry beans and black beluga lentils. Beans and other pulses are an inexpensive way to make a dish more substantial and filling and they are a greats source of folate, fibre and iron – all minerals in-demand by those following a plant-based diet.

Amazing grains

From the humble oat, a source of beta-glucan that has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels, to quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur, faro and amaranth, the demand for alternative (and gluten-free) grains has exploded. Many are high in protein and fibre. Freekeh (not gf) has prebiotic properties, quinoa is high in omega 3 fatty acids, and buckwheat is rich in both magnesium and manganese.

Tea time

Green tea has long been prized for its calming and antioxidant properties; it is also purported to boost metabolic rate. Matcha has become a power ingredient, in everything from baked goods to beauty products, and now other antioxidant teas are also rising to the fore, including purple tea, hibiscus and yerba mate making the move into both sweet and savoury dishes. Hibiscus is popular in Mexican dishes and is prized for its purported antioxidant properties and beneficial impact on cholesterol and blood pressure.

Brilliant botanicals

With busy lives and the pandemic contributing to stress levels, it’s no surprise that we have also seen the desirability of calming and healing ingredients shoot up, particularly those of a floral nature. We’re seeing lavender (said to aid anxiety, depression, and fatigue) leap from desserts over to savoury dishes, and honey widely used as a more natural way of adding sweetness. Honey (particularly Manuka honey) is prized for its healing and soothing properties, with anti-bacterial enzymes and anti-inflammatory antioxidant compounds.

How you can incorporate functional foods into your range with Bowman Ingredients

At Bowman Ingredients our NPD team are at the leading edge of new and exciting ingredients. We work with our customers to develop bespoke coatings to meet their needs. So whether you’d like a sticky manuka honey marinade, a probiotic-rich pre-dust or a crunchy coating packed with nuts and seeds, talk to us and we’ll help to give your next dish or food product that functional foods halo-effect.

NB All health claims mentioned in this article are reported benefits only.