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From saffron beer to kefir water, the new crop of NPD embracing unique functional ingredients

Despite cost and inflation concerns, trend reports note rising demand among many consumers for foods with functionality, such as those that can help bolster the immune system. Many brands are responding.

Among European consumers, 3 in 4 believe they better understand what works for their health and wellbeing, leading to an increased interest in fortified and functional foods, according to proprietary research from Kerry Tate and nutrition conducted back in 2022.

According to Innova Market Insights’ top 10 trends for 2023, cost and inflation are key concerns for consumers and food manufacturers. Yet despite these worries, consumers are ready to pay for products which are fresh, locally produced and for functional ingredients that boost physical health.

There are many examples of food and beverage manufacturers incorporating functional properties into product formulation.

This is particularly the case in beverages and the rapidly modernising low/no alcohol sector. Much product innovation here focuses on functional benefits functional benefits, and the use of botanicals to create more intense flavours to broaden the options available to consumers.

Recent data from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis notes the introduction of spirit alternatives across a wider range of categories, such as aperitifs, dark spirits, and agave. The use of nootropics, vitamins, and adaptogens, meanwhile, is seeing product messaging shifting from the absence of alcohol to flavour and other benefits.

The ‘world’s first’ saffron and lavender enriched functional beer

One of the latest arrivals to the UK’s maturing low/no beer scene is Ticket, a saffron and lavender-enriched brew that positions itself as a functional pale ale of Persian descent.

Loosely based on Shams, a popular Persian non-alcoholic brew from before the Iranian Revolution, Ticket is a heady blend of malted barley, hops, yeast, saffron, lavender and orange.  Brewed at one of the leading craft brewers in the north of England, it recently secured the following review from the awareness charity Alcohol Change: “If you’re going to make a beer with no alcohol, it needs something else to make it memorable. Ticket pale ale certainly has that courtesy of the inclusion of saffron and lavender…The saffron gives the beer a striking yellow hue like no other. There are plenty of citrusy hops and the lavender adds extra floral notes…it’s definitely one for those who appreciate a flavour-packed pale ale.”

Saffron, as the world’s most expensive spice with a ‘big flavour’, certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Saffron’s inclusion was as much about creating a unique functional brew as it was about producing a distinct flavour, the company’s Faye Soleimani told FoodNavigator. “Saffron has a proud reputation for boosting mood, improving memory and enhancing libido,” ​we were told. “Notable saffron antioxidants include crocin, safranal and crocetin which protect against oxidative stress, protect against brain cell degradation and reduce appetite. Lavender for its part has a proud reputation for aiding sleep and tackling asthma.”

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Ticket is a saffron and lavender-enriched brew that positions itself as a functional pale ale of Persian descent

Back to the non-alcoholic drink sector, there is evidence of companies widening their offerings and innovating with botanicals, adaptogens and similar ingredients as more consumers take an interest in their mental and physical wellbeing.

Newly-launched PiQi has created a range of drinks made using water kefir, a fermented, living ingredient with a powerful probiotic punch and immune-boosting benefits. The PiQi range features organic ingredients and unique water kefir flavour combinations that include butterfly pea flower and grapefruit and cardamom. 

Water kefir has recognized probiotic qualities and can help support healthy gut microbiota, which plays an important role in digestion, weight management, and the immune system, according to Aksana Fitzpatrick, co-founder of PiQi. “We wanted to provide variety to consumers, specifically options outside of the dairy isle with a unique set of probiotic strains to support gut-health and overall wellbeing,”​ she said.

“A healthy gut is a diverse gut, and we know that diversity of our microbiome decreases with age. Yet there aren’t many strains in general that are used commercially in foods like yogurt for example. You tend to see the same few, which is why we believe that turning to traditional foods and getting naturally occurring probiotics from a variety of fermented foods and drinks, like water kefir, can be a better alternative.” 

Water kefir does however have some drawbacks from a manufacturing point of view, such as a much shorter shelf-life and the presence of live yeast, for example. “People in the industry often compare it to either soda or kombucha instead of a chilled, cultured dairy-like product and with that expect 6 months+ shelf life,” said Fitzpatrick. “But kefir is a living product and getting to this shelf-life would mean sacrificing the quality and live cultures which we will not compromise on.”

Traditional fermented foods are familiar yet novel and they are regaining popularity as more research is conducted about the gut and its importance to how our entire immune system functions, she added.

“Benefits of kefir have been studied for a long time. However, water kefir is not well known like its milk counterpart in the West. It’s a traditional fermented beverage that originated in South America and is completely dairy-free, making it a more sustainable option as well. We work with an EU-based R&D lab that’s helping us understand our own kefir culture better and check up on its health and diversity over time. At the time of bottling, we know that there are up to 30 billion live cultures per 250ml. 

“Our main customer base consists of people who are already familiar with dairy products like yogurt and milk kefir on some level but who don’t enjoy the taste and texture, and alcohol reducers who enjoy the bubbles but not the hangover. Water Kefir is a lot easier to drink, it’s a nourishing treat and is definitely growing in popularity not just in UK but across Europe in places like France and Portugal and in North America where it’s a more established market already.”

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Newly-launched PiQi has created a range of drinks made using water kefir

Jamu Wild Water is another recently-launched brand that makes sparkling botanical water with active gut health and immune boosting properties. Its co-founder, Tahi Grant-Sturgis, told us that as the understanding of adaptogenic and nootropic ingredients widens, functionality within the drink sector is an increasing interest for consumers who are becoming more health savvy, and looking for added health value in their purchases.

“This is the opportunity Jamu Wild Water wishes to further by making sure those ‘functional’ benefits are accessible to all age groups,”​ she said. “Our sparkling waters focus on gut and immune health with apoptogenic botanicals and prebiotic fibre to support these systems. They’re refreshingly simple, bursting with natural ingredients and appeal to all ages.”

Of course, it is much easier for drinks brands to be agile when formulating with these types of functional ingredient. In the realm of food, it is snack brands are typically finding more room for manoeuvrability when formulating with functional ingredients.    

HFSS compliant snack cracker bites maker Pep & Lekker, for example, has revamped its recipe to improve both the taste and functional benefits. “Our snacks now include inulin powder and are a certified pre-biotic,” said Founder and Director Susan Gafsen. “There is so much research now to support the link with gut and mental health and we have seen the success of so many prebiotic cereals, so we saw the gap and need to provide this benefit in an ‘on the go’ snack.”

“Our snacks also include 113% of daily plant-based omega 3s, which is very important for those on a plant based diet to eat sufficient Omega 3’s to maintain the right energy and fitness levels particularly if they are active, and 19% of daily magnesium, more than 10x that of a banana. Magnesium is important to support immunity and women pre or post menopause are often in need of supplements.”

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