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Super Popular Food

Kyle Bradley
Super Popular Food

by Kyle Bradley


Hear that buzzing? If you’ve played any part in the nutrition industry over the past few years, you know it’s superfoods causing the ruckus. “The rise in public interest in superfoods has been meteoric,” said Wayne Geilman, Ph.D., senior research scientist, Pure Fruit Technologies (PFT). “The key element of growth in this sector is not so much formulation, but identification of natural, whole foods that have minimal processing and fortification.” Superfoods don’t need any fortification; they’re densely packed with healthy phytonutrients already—fats, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, polyphenols, polysacchrides, lipoproteins and glycoproteins, to name a few.

The antioxidant power of many of these fruits and veggies, measured by oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC), is through the roof, meaning measurable health benefits for the consumer. But buzzing market conditions can also signify increased odds of deceptive marketing. “It is good to see the expansion in this category,” said Kazie Uyama, president and nutritional consultant, C’est Si Bon Co. “However, some products simply are jumping on the bandwagon with unsatisfactory [active ingredient] quality.”

Rick Simpson, president, Ultra Labs, also pointed out more types of exotic food products are receiving increased media attention. For these reasons, retailers must give due diligence in investigating new companies wanting a share of this growing market, and consumers must better understand the science behind these powerful fruits and veggies.

Industry insiders’ lists of superfoods may vary, but popular recent product releases include açaí, noni, mangosteen, goji, seabuckthorn, camu camu, pomegranate and cranberries. Green superfoods—their own subcategory in this nutritional market sector—include cereal grasses such as barley, wheat, rye, oat and kamut; as well as microalgaes such as spirulina, chlorella and Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA).

Exotic Fruits Galore

Many superfoods making waves in the retail sector have been around for centuries, but have only recently been harvested on a sufficient scale for global consumption. Some companies have examined traditional usage of superfoods to determine the ideal delivery method for active ingredients. John Digles, senior vice president of sales and marketing for XanGo, used the company’s mangosteen product as an example; he said the retail success and health benefits of the product exist because all elements of the mangosteen work synergistically. “You can’t just take xanthones and see what it does for you,” he said. “These nutrients work together—it’s a chain-link effect.”

A recent study evaluated the effects of alpha-mangostin, a xanthone from the pericarps of mangosteen, on human colon cancer cells.1 Results characterized alpha-mangostin as one of the most effective chemotherapeutic agents for colorectal adenocarcinoma. As far as general health benefits, Digles added: “Research shows the whole mangosteen fruit supports cartilage and joint function, strengthens the immune system and cardiovascular system.”

Geilman added to the list of mangosteen’s healthy benefits. “Xanthones can be antimicrobial, anti-histamineric, anti-inflammatory, and may induce thermogenesis [fat burning],” he said. Aside from its Mango-Xan product, PFT also produces a goji berry (Lycium barbarum) product called Goji-zen. Clinical data for trials using goji berries is growing slowly; but, exploratory trials involving aged mice produced suggestive results in relation to the berries’ antioxidant activity. One such study concluded Lycium barbarum polysaccharides can be used in compensating decline in total antioxidant capacity, immune function and the activities of antioxidant enzymes, thereby reducing health risks accelerated by age-induced free radicals.2 In keeping with the idea of promoting superfoods with historical usage in mind, the philosophy for preparing PFT’s goji tonic follows the principle of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in regard to fortifying internal organs to achieve longevity and a healthy life, Geilman noted.

Matrix Health Products has mangosteen and goji berries in its product portfolio as well, but primarily promotes the nutrient profile of the noni fruit. “Noni is anti-inflammatory, an immunity builder, as well as an analgesic for pain,” said Steve Kravitz, president. He noted Matrix also honors historical usage as a manufacturing philosophy. “What we look at is the tradition of how it was originally used,” he said. “You want to use the plant part—whether it’s the leaves, the stem or the fruit—with original research benefits.”

A recent trial investigated the anti-inflammatory and potential cancer chemopreventive constituents of noni, and found methanol extracts and other compounds in the fruit exhibited potent anti-inflammatory activity and moderate inhibitory effects against the Epstein-Barr virus early antigen.3 Another study acknowledged noni as a “traditional Polynesian medicinal plant useful for bowel disorders, skin inflammation, infection, mouth ulcers and wound healing,” further concluding the juice of Morinda citrifolia fruit significantly reduced blood sugar levels and hastened wound healing in diabetic rats.4

Any discussion of superfoods cannot exclude perhaps the most celebrated superfruit of late—the açaí berry. One study involving açaí found it to have exceptional activity against superoxide in a superoxide scavenging (SOD) assay, “the highest of any food reported to date against the peroxyl radical” as measured by the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) assay.5 The study further noted açaí contained bioactivities related to anti-inflammation and immune function, as the berry was found to be a potential inhibitor of cyclooxygenase (COX) 1 and 2. Another study confirmed the berry’s antioxidant power comes from well known flavonoids such as anthocyanins (ACNs) and proanthocyanidins (PACs).6

Popularized by the mainstream media, the berry is now a staple in the product catalogues of many manufacturers. ToGo Brands, for example, offers açaí in its Go Greens superfood mix in ready-to-pour stick packs and its Natural Energy Boost beverage. “Açaí, and superfruits in general, are popular in part because of the explosion of new science on the benefits of [their] polyphenols,” said John H. Maher, DCCN, ToGo Brands. “Methylated xanthine compounds (e.g. caffeine, theobromine and theophylline) as found in yerba maté, guarana seed extract and dark cocoa are well proven to increase metabolism.”

Cranberries also contain the potent PACs found in açaí, but Fruit Essentials has harnessed the lesser known potential of these red berries. “While cranberries are commonly known for their healthy antioxidants, the seed extracts offer an array of inherent benefits of omega-3, -6 and -9 essential fatty acids (EFAs), other antioxidants, phytosterols and more,” said Allen J. Luke, president, Fruit Essentials Inc. “Omega Bits® fortified cranberry pieces are enriched with cranberry seed oil, offering additional [omegas] that are stabilized by antioxidants naturally found in the oil.” In fact, cranberry in a combination berry powder exhibited antiangiogenic and antiatherosclerotic activities, and potential cytotoxicity toward a specific pathogen responsible for various gastrointestinal disorders.7

It Is Easy Being Green

Many years ago, eating grass probably wouldn’t have been associated with health. But, just as their fruity counterparts had been in use for centuries, so green foods have long been consumed by native populations for countless health benefits. “Green foods are rich in vitamins, minerals and chlorophyll, the green pigment found in most plants,” said Ellen Kamhi, Ph.D., RN, “The Natural Nurse” and herbalist, Nature’s Answer. “Chlorophyll has long been used as a healing agent and is well-known for its anti-aging properties. It helps heal wounds of the skin and internal membranes, stimulate the growth of new cells, and hinder the growth of bacteria.”

According to Kamhi, blue-green algae (AFA) is high in trace elements, vitamin A and carotenoid complex, and vitamin B12, and is used for increasing physical and mental strength and stamina. Wheat grass, like many of its greenfood cohorts, is known for its ability to cleanse and detoxify. “The variety of wheat grass grown indoors for purposes of juicing is a good source of chlorophyll and used as a purifying tonic,” Kamhi noted. “Dehydrated wheat grass, a common ingredient in green food supplements, is more nutritionally rich than the juicing variety.” Kamhi said the company adds barley grass to AFA and wheat grass in its Greens Today Original Formula because it helps support the growth of healthy intestinal bacteria and contains large amounts of vitamin C for the optimal formation of collagen, the structural support of connective tissue.

Spirulina is another well-known green food. One study noted a water-soluble protein from a certain strain of spirulina had potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties.8 The study cited a decrease in the proliferation of hepatocellular carcinoma cell lines, and a decrease in membrane potential in spirulina-treated cancer cells. Another study noted a variety of spirulina had renal-protective effects against mercuric chloride (mercury) induced toxicity.9

“Spirulina has a wide range of benefits, most notably immune system enhancement, cognitive function and eye health,” said Bob Capelli, vice president, sales and marketing, Cyanotech, makers of Hawaiian Spirulina Pacifica. He also noted not all spirulina may offer these myriad health benefits. “Spirulina produced in other countries does not meet the safety and quality standards necessary to have GRAS [generally recognized as safe] status,” he said. “If you want the safety and quality associated with GRAS status, you’ll have to buy spirulina grown in America.”

Another green food used in several formulations is chlorella. “If we squeeze [health benefits] down to two areas, immune adjustment and detoxification,” are the primary benefits of C’est Si Bon Co.’s Chlorenergy product, Uyama said. “Chlorella vulgaris stimulates red blood cells and white blood cells while cleansing the digestive and gastrointestinal tracts.” Uyama also noted potential health benefits for consumers with Syndrome X symptoms such as obesity, glucose resistance, hypertension and high cholesterol. One form of chlorella lowered blood pressure and total cholesterol in hypertensive rats;10 chlorella also decreased incidence of cerebral vessel lesions in the same test subjects. Scientists attributed these effects to large quantities of antioxidants, including carotenoids (especially lutein), phospholipids and arginine (for enhanced function of blood vessels) present in the chlorella.

Kamut, barley and oat grasses are the foundation of the ALL ONE™ Green Phyto Base. “The antioxidant and detoxifying effects of the phyto chemicals found in [this] vegetable powder help support a healthy immune system,” said Jenai Huff, national sales director, ALL ONE. “Barley, in particular, has the additional benefit of being high in beta glucans, which have been shown to be beneficial for cardiovascular health and supporting healthy blood sugar metabolism.” Indeed, past studies indicate increasing soluble fiber through consumption of barley in a healthy diet can reduce cardiovascular risk factors,11 and that total cholesterol was significantly lower when trial subjects’ diets contained 3 or 6 g/d beta-glucan from barley than when their diets contained no beta-glucan.12

Green Foods Corp. has applied this and other research to its various green food products, including its flagship Green Magma®. “[We have] invested heavily in barley grass research in order to elucidate the actions and benefits of our principal product Green Magma,” said Bob Terry, Ph.D., technical service director, Green Foods Corp. “We have found barley grass juice powder supports good cardiovascular function and, as an excellent antioxidant cocktail, helps reduce the level of overall free radical activity in the blood, thereby promoting longevity and healthful aging.” Terry added amelioration of skin problems, chronic pancreatitis and hypercholesterolemia to the list of health conditions Green Magma may address. The product also contains various herbs, prebiotics and vegetable-based enzymes to ease digestion and maximize phytonutrient absorption.

Super Blends

With so many virtuous superfoods on the market, many manufacturers are turning to blended supplements to maximize health benefits, as Green Foods Corp. and ALL ONE have done. Other manufacturers also realize the perks of healthy blends, and use product innovation for brand differentiation.

“We created a unique Rainforest Exotic Fruit Multiple, [which] combines six of our most popular exotic fruits into one convenient product,” Simpson said. “The anti-aging market is always of interest to our consumer, and the high antioxidant potential of many of these exotic fruits can be tied to anti-aging health benefits.” Included in the blend are açaí, mangosteen, pomegranate, goji, noni and camu camu. Simpson touted the collective antioxidant punch of blends, and noted consumers are most interested in natural-source nutrients and antioxidants, as opposed to outside ingredients added to bolster ORAC values.

PFT also offers a combination supplement. The high carotenoid mix includes seabuckthorn, goji, rose hips and the gac fruit for targeted heart and vision health. Geilman said: “Although research often focuses on things like antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, emerging markets will focus on interactions of phytonutrients previously not studied on human health.” Kravitz agreed, noting many manufacturers will likely see increased calls for specialized blends. “Instead of having single ingredients, a lot of our customers are building products for a specific health condition,” he said.

That’s what NeoCell Corp. had in mind with its Collagen + C™ Pomegranate Liquid supplement. “Pomegranate juice was used in ancient times to treat anti-inflammatory arthritic conditions,” said Ahmad Alkayali, a consultant to NeoCell. “Collagen + C™ Pomegranate Liquid helps combat the signs of aging most often evident in the deterioration of bones, joints and connective tissues, insufficient elasticity of the skin and diminished cardiovascular health.” In fact, a past study indicated pomegranate fruit extract may inhibit cartilage degradation in osteoarthritis sufferers and may also be a useful nutritive supplement for maintaining joint integrity and function. Moreover, said Alkayali, “Collagen types I and III in [the product] support collagen production in tendons, ligaments, hair skin and nails.” NeoCell also offers the power of ellagic acid in capsule and powder form as Pomegranate Power®. Relying on the traditional phytonutrient synergies of the whole fruit, the powder is made via a patent-pending method of extracting ellagic acid from the seeds, rind and skin of the fruit.

Wary Consumption

Despite the efficacy of superfoods, FDA does not allow any health claims for any of these ingredients. However, marketers are making savvy use of available regulatory options. “We use structure/function claims such as ‘supports immune function’, ‘supports eye health’ and ‘supports healthy cholesterol levels’,” Capelli said. Predictably, increased consumer interest in superfood science is one reason the market sector is expanding, as more shoppers are increasingly combing retail shelves for condition-specific products.

The onus continues to fall on retailers to serve as quality gatekeepers. Kravitz suggested retailers use discretion in building superfood inventories. “What to look for in a label is to see if there are preservatives in [the product],” Kravitz said. “See if there are flavoring agents in it, natural or not, and coloring agents, natural or not.” He also noted water listed as an ingredient can cast doubt on how much of an active ingredient is actually in the finished product. “When you don’t put enough of the active ingredient in a product, it’s not going to have the therapeutic benefits the consumers want, need or expect,” Kravitz said. “The superfood trend will continue, as long as everyone consistently brings the bar up as far as quality and integrity go.” He further noted if retailers fail to scrutinize the sourcing and manufacturing practices of amateur companies looking to break into the market, and people are not getting results they’re promised in advertising, consumer interest in the category could easily diminish.

Retailers have the power to grow the superfood market. With legitimate science driving raging demand, the market is expanding daily. All in all, consumers should understand the benefits of these foods are best realized as part of an overall healthy lifestyle, and that not all products are created equal.


1. Nakagawa Y et al. “Characterized mechanism of alpha-mangostin-induced cell death: Caspase-independent apoptosis with release of endonuclease-G from mitochondria and increased miR-143 expression in human colorectal cancer DLD-1 cells.” Bioorg Med Chem. 2007 May 18.

2. Li XM, Ma YL, Liu XJ. “Effect of the Lycium barbarum polysaccharides on age-related oxidative stress in aged mice.” J Ethnopharmacol. 2007 May 22;111(3):504-11.

3. Akihisa T et al. “Anti-inflammatory and Potential Cancer Chemopreventive Constituents of the Fruits of Morinda citrifolia (Noni).” J Nat Prod. 2007 May 25;70(5):754-757.

4. Nayak BS et al. “Wound-healing activity of Morinda citrifolia fruit juice on diabetes-induced rats.” J Wound Care. 2007 Feb;16(2):83-6.

5. Schauss AG et al. “Antioxidant capacity and other bioactivities of the freeze-dried Amazonian palm berry, Euterpe oleraceae mart. (açaí).” J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Nov 1;54(22):8604-10.

6. Schauss AG et al. “Phytochemical and nutrient composition of the freeze-dried amazonian palm berry, Euterpe oleraceae mart. (açaí).” J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Nov 1;54(22):8598-603.

7. Zafra-Stone S et al. “Berry anthocyanins as novel antioxidants in human health and disease prevention.” Mol Nutr Food Res. 2007 Jun;51(6):675-83.

8. Roy KR et al. “Alteration of mitochondrial membrane potential by Spirulina platensis C-phycocyanin induces apoptosis in the doxorubicinresistant human hepatocellular-carcinoma cell line HepG2.” Biotechnol Appl Biochem. 2007 Jul;47(Pt 3):159-67.

9. Sharma MK et al. “Evaluation of protective efficacy of Spirulina fusiformis against mercury induced nephrotoxicity in Swiss albino mice.” Food Chem Toxicol. 2007 Jun;45(6):879-87.

10. Sansawa H et al. “Effect of chlorella and its fractions on blood pressure, cerebral stroke lesions, and life-span in stroke-prone spontaneously hypertensive rats.” J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2006 Dec;52(6):457-66.

11. Behall KM, Scholfield DJ, Hallfrisch J. “Lipids significantly reduced by diets containing barley in moderately hypercholesterolemic men.” J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Feb;23(1):55-62.

12. Behall KM, Scholfield DJ, Hallfrisch J. “Diets containing barley significantly reduce lipids in mildly hypercholesterolemic men and women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Nov;80(5):1185-93.

13. Ahmed S et al. “Punica granatum L. extract inhibits IL-1beta-induced expression of matrix metalloproteinases by inhibiting the activation of MAP kinases and NF-kappaB in human chondrocytes in vitro.” J Nutr. 2005 Sep;135(9):2096-102.

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