Spicing Up the Functional Food & Beverage Category

September 15, 2003

16 Min Read
Spicing Up the Functional Food & Beverage Category


Spicing Up the Functional Food & Beverage Category

by Kim Schoenhals

While the Spice Girls have gone by the wayside, the spice category in food manufacturing remains healthy. With several studies highlighting the health benefits of spice consumption, the category has expanded into functional foods and beverages. However, there are some concerns with the category, and manufacturers choosing to use spices must consider the issues of using irradiated and organic ingredients, as well as what types of manufacturing processes are acceptable for turning out the most flavorful spice.

Definitions & Processing Concerns

Before discussing the benefits of spice and the issues involved in manufacturing, it is necessary to understand the definition of the word, as well as how spice differs from herb. The dictionary defines a spice as an aromatic vegetable product that is used to season or flavor foods, while an herb is described as a seed-producing annual, biennial or perennial used for its medicinal, savory or aromatic qualities. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers spices aromatic vegetable substances used for the seasoning of food that have had no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring removed from them.

There is a very specific definition where herbs are the leafy parts of a plant from annual and biannual plants, and spices are more from tropical areas, said Elizabeth Erman, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA). However, we lump them all together because they are culinary flavors that we use in cooking. Its a catch-all, but if you want to be very specific, they are different in their forms.

While definitions have varied and merged, spice usage is widespread. Spices are used in virtually all prepared foods, said Tony Evans, president of Eustis, Fla.-based U.S. Nutra. This includes all processed meat products and most baked goods, confectionary, snack foods, etc. Beverages use capsicum, ginger, vanilla and cardamom, and utilize a smaller range of spices than prepared foods.

Some spices are used as colorings, such as turmeric and paprika, while others, such as oregano and rosemary, can be used as natural preservatives due to their antioxidant effects. The most prominent property of all spices is antioxidant, said Virender Sodhi, M.D., N.D., technical advisor at Bellevue, Wash.-based Ayush Herbs. They have essential oils and fixed oils, almost all of them, but the antioxidant properties you will find across the board from turmeric to basil and from coriander to black pepper.

Even with coloring benefits and antioxidant properties, the majority of spices are simply used for the flavor they impart. While almost all spices will be cooked at some point between the harvester and the consumer, the processing method used to create the spice should be considered in choosing an ingredient for any food or beverage product. Processing is very important, Sodhi said. You have to understand the chemistry of each particular herb, and it will be different with every one. ... Like turmeric, if you cook it, will lose a lot of properties. Bioflavonoids are destroyed very easily with heat.

In addition to reducing bioflavonoid content, heating can also affect flavor and essential oil content. However, manufacturers have come up with some ways to address these concerns. Flavor companies have developed a whole range of spice extracts that are microencapsulated to preserve flavor during processing and cooking, Evans said.

Sodhi added that a processing method called cryogrinding may protect essential oil content. Cryogrinding means you take the spice and freeze it first, and then grind it, he said. Because the essential oils are volatile at a very low temperature, when you grind them, they generate heat. When the essential oils get heated, they can be evaporated. But when you freeze them, you dont create that much heat and dont lose a lot of essential oils.

The method used to prepare the spice also dictates its physical characteristics, which should be considered in regard to the desired finished product. Generally, if youre using whole or sized herbs, its for visual characteristics and you dont want to impact that by over-mixing, said Liz Morris, seasonings development and applications manager at Owings Mills, Md.-based Baltimore Spice. Visually, some people want to see spice and will use a larger particle size, whereas others just want a finely powdered spice where the flavor is distributed evenly throughout the product.

Another issue involved in spice processing is irradiation. Irradiation is a technology used to eliminate disease-causing germs from foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Foods, including spices, can be treated with ionizing radiation, which is known to kill bacteria and parasites that can cause food-borne disease. As of 1999, CDC noted irradiated foods are not dangerous for human consumption and do not have altered nutritional values.

Since then, a 2003 study specifically focusing on spices showed gamma-irradiation (one of three types of irradiation approved in the United States) can alter the antioxidant and carotenoid content of aromatic herbs and spices.1 Italian researchers treated nine spice and aromatic herb samples (basil, bird pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary and sage) with gamma-irradiation according to commercial practices. They saw significant losses in total ascorbate in black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano and sage, as well as decreased carotenoid content in cinnamon, oregano, parsley, rosemary, bird pepper and sage.

Regardless of the nutritional effects of irradiation, the practice is still considered an effective way to prevent food-borne illness due to microbial contamination. The pro of using irradiation is that it probably has the biggest kill rate and is the most effective in decreasing pathogens and other microbes, Morris said. The con, in my mind, is a negative consumer attitude that needs to be overcome. The general public has not been educated as to the benefits, and they have this misconception ... [but] with E. coli scares, theyre willing to see that there is a benefit.

While the benefits include the fact that microbes are destroyed, the safety concern still exists among consumers and manufacturers alike. I am not in favor of using irradiated spices, Sodhi said. There is a concern about safetyit has not been proven that its safe. I really dont encourage irradiated food at all.

The concern with using non-irradiated spices is that the microbial content will surpass the governments maximum allowable limits. However, microbiological cultures can be used to determine the bacterial content of spices, and there are options left to manufacturers who choose not to use irradiated spices. If [a food/beverage manufacturer] uses some heat sterilization or pasteurization that is going to affect the final product, they dont really need to concern themselves with using irradiated spices, said Richard Patterson, vice president of sales at Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based Starwest Botanicals Inc. The process will end up making a clean product at the end and would take care of the bacteria in final processing.

Irradiation is of particular concern in the organic movement. Organic spices are not irradiated, and are not allowed to be according to the U.S. Department of Agricultures (USDA) National Organic Program, which went into effect nearly a year ago. The fact that organic spices are non-irradiated does cause some concern regarding bacterial content. Again, for processors that deal with this all the time, their finished products usually go through a sterilization process that can eliminate that, Patterson said. Thats always been a concern with organics, but there is some hope. There is a new technology thats been developed that were looking at for organics. Its called steam sterilization. It might be the answer to creating cleaner organics that can be used for more purposes.

Using organic spices is necessary if a manufacturer wishes to market a product to the organic consumer as 100% organic. It can increase the value of the finished product and allay consumer concerns regarding pesticides and herbicides.

There is no known superiority in flavor that can be attributed to organic spices as compared with regular, Evans said. However, organic spices are devoid of weedkiller and herbicide residues that can be a problem with regular cultivated spices. To have maximum added value as a flavor, organic spices would need to be included in food products which are themselves 100-percent organic.

What the Science Says

Four spices that are commonly recognized in the natural products industry for functional health benefits are black pepper, licorice, oregano and rosemary. Each has an endless list of research supporting potential roles in human health and nutrition.

Black Pepper: This spice is well-known throughout the world for enhancing flavors and improving taste, but it may also enhance nutrient bioavailability. Specifically, a 14-day study conducted by researchers from Piscataway, N.J.-based Sabinsa Corp., manufacturers of Bioperine, showed black pepper enhanced the bioavailability of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10).2 The supplement used in the study contained a minimum 98-percent piperine, an active constituent of black pepper. Unpublished research conducted by Sabinsa researchers indicated Bioperine enhanced the gastrointestinal absorption of selenium, betacarotene and vitamin B6, as well.

While black pepper is known to enhance nutrient bioavailability, it may also alter drug metabolism. Researchers at the Dr. Margarete Fischer-Bosch-Institute of Clinical Pharmacology in Germany showed piperine inhibited both the drug transporter P-glycoprotein and the major drug metabolizing enzyme CYP3A4 and suggested these results indicate dietary piperine could alter first-pass elimination of many drugs.3 Case in point: Researchers from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi showed piperine delayed elimination of phenytoin, an anti-epileptic drug that has a low therapeutic index; they concluded piperine may affect other drugs with low therapeutic indices.4

In addition to affecting the absorption of various nutrients and drugs, black pepper also has shown its value in improving elements of digestive health. In an animal study, the spice was used in combination with coriander, turmeric, red chile and cumin, and improved pancreatic lipase, chymotrypsin and amylase, as well as stimulated bile flow and bile acid secretion.5 In additional animal research, piperine reduced fluid secretion in the small intestine.6

Black pepper is also a known anti-mutagenic7 and may be useful as an immune-enhancing ingredient.8 In addition, according to literature from Sabinsa, piperine is thought to enhance the bodys natural thermogenic action, which may lend it to improving weight management efforts.

Licorice: Known in Latin as Glycyrrhiza glabra, licorice originated in the Mediterranean and Middle East and has been used medicinally and as a flavoring agent since at least 500 B.C. Licorice is used to flavor a wide variety of candies, gum, tobacco products and beverages.

In terms of its medicinal properties, licorice has been used traditionally for fatigue, as an expectorant, in GI distress and in inflammation. Licorice root, because of its isoflavone constituents, is also thought to have phytoestrogenic properties. It is known to exert estrogen-like activity to reduce body mass, according to a research review conducted by Italian researchers.9 Like the estrogen estradiol, several licorice isoflavans are thought to inhibit serotonin re-uptake, which may lend them to reducing depression in pre- and postmenopausal women, according to Israeli researchers.10 The isoflavans they testedglabridin, 4-O-methylglabridin and glabreneinhibited serotonin re-uptake by 60 percent, 53 percent or 47 percent, respectively. Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland cautioned pregnant women against licorice consumption, because high intakes compared to low intakes may increase the risk of preterm delivery more than two-fold.11

In addition to its role in womens health, Glycyrrhiza glabra has been shown to exert antioxidant properties and protect liver mitochondrial function against oxidative damage.12,13 Certain flavonoids derived from licorice give it anti-bacterial properties,14,15 while the spices glycyrrhizic acid inhibits the proliferation of several viruses, including Epstein-Barr,16 coronavirus17 and HIV.18

Licorice is also thought to play a protective role against heart disease and cancer. Israeli researchers found licorice consumption reduced systolic blood pressure and protected LDL cholesterol against major atherogenic modificationsmeaning the spice may protect against cardiovascular disease.19 In terms of cancer, licorice and its derivatives are thought to protect against carcinogen-induced DNA damage and induce apoptosis in cancer cells.20 In a specific in vitro trial, researchers from The Chinese University of Hong Kong found glycyrrhizic acid protected a human cell line against carcinogen-induced oxidative stress, which researchers noted probably contributed to the compounds anti-carcinogenic properties.21

In breast cancer, licorices role is more complicated because of its phytoestrogen properties. Researchers from the University of Calabria in Italy noted the licorice-derived compound chalcone isoliquiritigenin (ISL) has known anti-tumor properties, as well as estrogen receptor effects that should spur growth in the hormone-sensitive human breast cancer cell line MCF-7.22 They conducted in vitro research to examine the apparent paradox and determined ISLs activity and its balance between being a risk factor or prophylactic in breast cancer may depend on dietary intake.

Oregano: Oregano has been used as a cooking spice and also as a medicinal agent for centuries. Medicinally speaking, oregano volatile oil has been traditionally used for respiratory concerns and as an expectorant, as well as for dyspepsia, rheumatoid arthritis and urinary tract disorders.

Oregano oil is now most popularly used as an antibacterial agent. In vitro research has demonstrated oreganos antimicrobial effects against Shigella sonnei and Shigella flexneri23 and a particular strain of Escherichia coli(E. coli).24 Additional in vitro research showed oregano essential oil and some of its constituents were effective against E. coli, Listeria monocytogenesand Salmonella enterica.25 Animal research showed oregano essential oil protected against some symptoms of Eimeria tenella infection.26

Aside from its antibacterial properties, oregano essential oil is also known for its antioxidant properties. A dried oregano studied by Norweigan researchers possessed very high concentrations of antioxidants, leading researchers to conclude herbs such as oregano may significantly contribute to dietary antioxidant intake, perhaps better than other food groups such as fruits, cereals and vegetables.27 Greek researchers analyzing ethanol and acetone extracts of Greek oregano, as well as ground Greek oregano, concluded all forms contained antioxidant properties.28

These antioxidant properties may prevent oxidative damage in foods. Of several Mediterranean food spices, oregano was second most effective for inhibiting lipid peroxidation of refined olive oil that was stored at room temperature.29 In long-term frozen turkey meat storage, the addition of oregano oil increased the retention of alpha-tocopherol in the meat, which partly elucidated the antioxidant activity exhibited by dietary oregano oil supplementation, according to researchers at Aristotle University in Greece.30

Oregano also has anti-thrombin activity, according to researchers at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.31 They studied three isolates of oreganoaristolochic acid I, aristolochic acid II and D-(+)- raffinoseand saw the two aristolochic acid constituents inhibited thrombin activity and exhibited activity against leukemia.

Rosemary: Theres rosemary, thats for remembrance, Ophelia professed in Shakespeares Hamlet. Apparently, Shakespeare was ahead of his time in terms of understanding the medicinal properties of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). A study published this year indicated rosemary aromatherapy enhanced performance for overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors, and elevated mood compared to a control group.32

The medicinal properties of rosemary are in the oil extracted from the leaves and leafy stems, the flowering dried twig tips, and the fresh and dried leaves. In addition to potential cognitive benefits, rosemary acts as an antioxidant in both aqueous and lipid systems.33 When its antioxidant properties were compared against ginger and turmeric extracts in several human cancer lines, rosemary showed the greatest antioxidant effects.34

In addition to antioxidant effects, rosemary is known as an antibacterial agent, specifically against Shigella sonnei and Shigella flexneri,35 although it has been shown to be ineffective as an antifungal.36

Interestingly, rosemary may play a role in protecting bone health. Research conducted at the University of Bern in Switzerland showed a bone protective effect of dried sage leaves, which led researchers to study additional herbs rich in essential oils.37 Their study, which included rosemary, demonstrated essential oils and their monoterpene components inhibited bone resorption in rats.

Making Choices

The science seems to indicate several health benefits from spice consumption; however, whether functional foods and beverages actually contain enough of the spice to merit a labeling claim is iffy. I think so, yes. Why not [use a labeling claim]? Sodhi said. Turmeric is just one example, but it has powerful anti-inflammatory action. ... Fenugreek has really wonderful effects on diabetes. Same thing with the commonly used cinnamon powder.

Conversely, many suppliers feel spices are used more for the flavor they impart than the health benefits. It is likely that typical flavor inclusion levels are lower than those required for certain dietary benefit claims, Evans said. However, as most spices are antioxidants, they do play a role in preserving food quality.

While they may play a preservative role, using too much spice can negatively affect the taste of a product, even if it would increase the health benefit. The problem is that spices, even though they may have medicinal benefits or health food benefits, if you put them in certain products, you can only use so much because they are used basically for flavoring, Patterson said. You can only use so much garlic in a product or so much ginger or fennel, because it would be overpowering.

In choosing a spice supplier, manufacturers should make sure to choose a conscientious one. Spice suppliers operate under ASTA quality and trading specifications, Evans said. These have been well established over time for each spice, and it is an advantage to trade with a supplier under these conditions.

Suppliers that pay careful attention to the rules can assist manufacturers in deciding on final seasoning formulas, potential label claims and whether to use irradiated or organic spices, or neither. When all the pieces fall into place, the flavor of a newly created functional food or beverage will be able to spice up consumers taste buds and maybe even overall health.

Editors notes: Some content for this story provided by Intramedicine.com.

For a full list of references to this story, click here.

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