Food ingredients, with their complex chemical names, are a source of confusion to many. The confusion is confounded with the introduction of increasingly innovative ingredients each year. Some consumers think that products with a large number of ingredients are unhealthy. That, however, is not always the case. Ingredients, both traditional and new, can be a source of numerous health benefits.

Food manufacturers are embracing a number of ingredients from around the world which were long known to have health and wellness benefits. A scientific discussion held at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting and Food last July urged American companies to expand the use of such medicinal ingredients in their products.

Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, pointed to a growing body of research that supports the effectiveness of a wide range of ingredients from all over the world on various ailments and conditions, from inflammation to digestion to cognitive function. She named several “rock star” ingredients from around the globe such as kefir from Russia, adzuki beans from Japan and black currant from the European Union, among many others. Badaracco noted that consumers are more open than ever to discussing health problems such as digestion and dementia and credits with bringing those issues to the forefront. “Pharmaceuticals are breaking down taboos for the food industry and that opens the door – we can talk about digestion, we can talk about cognitive function,” she said.

Carlos Barroso, president and founder of CJB & Associates, explained that the timing was right for such products, given the ongoing demand for “authentic” foods. Already, probiotic-enriched foods that have been popular overseas for years are a hit in this country. “It’s not a European phenomenon anymore – it’s already a multimillion dollar business here,” he said, adding that traditional incentives like marketplace success are as important as ever. “You can certainly make money from importing health and wellness trends from outside the U.S.”

Barroso says the next step is to use food as a way to deliver health properties. He cited a dietary supplement called triphala, made with a natural extract of three fruits. “Why put it into a pill? What about a natural triphala fruit snack?”

Speaker Kara Nielsen, a “trendologist” at the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco, Calif., said that food product developers here can easily and successfully incorporate such medicinal ingredients into food products that already have a certain cultural flair: using the Indian spice turmeric, shown to have healthful properties, in Indian-style simmer sauces, for example. “And don’t ignore common wisdom built on folk remedies – like enhanced chicken soup or extra cinnamon in baked goods,” she added.

The growing consumer interest in such products in the US and elsewhere offers immense potential for the practitioners of Tibbe Nabawi (Medicine of the Prophet) to manufacture products which contain ingredients mentioned in the Holy Quran and the practices of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith). There is some movement in the industry in this regard with the introduction of black seed (kalonji), miswak & neem tree extracts in toothpastes, etc. The Unani system of traditional medicine, practiced in South Asia, has for years been making products based on these ingredients. But their potential to be exported to other countries remains negligible due to their low standards and unsafe formulations. Some of these products have now been banned in the US and Canada for containing high levels of metallic compounds. An improvement in manufacturing standards and safe formulation can lead to the carving of a unique niche in the market. An example of this trend soon gaining ground is evident as one tooth paste manufacturer, whose product uses miswak extracts, recently received the seal of approval from the American Dental Association.