From Adaptogens to Alternative Proteins: Fueling the Growth of Functional Ingredients

From Adaptogens to Alternative Proteins: Fueling the Growth of Functional Ingredients

Functional Ingredients

The benefits of naturally occurring ingredients, like turmeric and elderberry, have long been known and used around the world for their medicinal properties.

Now, with the pandemic putting people’s focus on immunity support, improving sleep, and reducing stress and anxiety, functional ingredients are being taken to the next level. Sales of functional foods and beverages in the United States were estimated at $83 billion in 2021, up 6.8% over 2020, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

Ripe for innovation in the food and beverage industry, we’re here to dive into what functional ingredients are and how they are starting to take form across categories.

Functional Ingredients: Definition & Examples

While functional ingredients can mean a variety of things, the term typically refers to bioactive compounds that have the potential to influence human health beyond their basic nutritional value. These compounds can be obtained through produce, marine sources, microorganisms or repurposed from food processing


One popular example of functional ingredients is adaptogens, a class of herbs that adapt to an individual’s needs, such as managing stress and anxiety, boosting mood and fighting fatigue. Popular adaptogens include ashwagandha, tulsi (holy basil), rhodiola, reishi mushrooms and maca. Tastewise noted that interest in food and beverages featuring adaptogens has increased 24% since January 2020. Want to try adding adaptogens to your diet? Check out REBBL Elixirs, Kin Euphorics, Clusterbucks Granola, Moody Girl Chocolates or Butterfly Chocolate Reishi Nut Butter.


Also fueling the feel-good functional ingredient category is cannabis. The cannabis plant has more than 100 known cannabinoids, with THC and CBD being the most well-known. Researchers are studying the potential benefits of cannabinoids to address health concerns such as anxiety, stress, inflammation, pain and sleep. While the regulatory environment still presents hurdles for national brands, some rebel brands riding this “high” include: Oh Hi Sparkling CBD Seltzer; Recess, a sparkling water infused with hemp extract and adaptogens, Weetos, which makes CBD-infused cereals and snacks; Wowie, a hemp and adaptogen-infused sparkling beverage; and Mary Jones, a new brand from Jones Soda Co. that includes cannabis-infused sodas, gummies and syrups.


Sustainable nutrition, avoiding allergens and finding alternatives to traditional animal protein are all driving the growth of protein ingredients developed from fermentation. 

There are three categories of alternative protein fermentation; the Good Food Institute offers the following descriptions of them:

Traditional fermentation, which is how beer, wine, yogurt, and cheese are made, is “the process of changing a food through microbial anaerobic digestion.” It’s also used in providing flavor or functionality in plant-based meat alternatives, as is the case with tempeh, a fermented soybean product. 

Biomass fermentation uses “the high-protein content and rapid growth of microorganisms to efficiently produce large amounts of protein-rich food.” For example, plant-based protein company Quorn grows filamentous fungi using biomass fermentation to use as the primary ingredient in its products.

Precision fermentation, which is used to produce rennet for cheese, uses “microorganisms to produce specific functional ingredients.” This allows alternative protein companies to create specific proteins, enzymes, flavor molecules, vitamins, pigments and fats.

Superbrewed Food’s Cultured Postbiotic Protein is an anaerobically fermented whole food protein made from microflora found in nature that convert plant starches into a nutrient rich protein ingredient. The ingredient is more than 80% protein by weight, among the highest protein concentration in a single microbe ever reported. It is a high-quality protein as it contains all nine essential amino acids and more branched-chain and essential amino acids than plant-based proteins. It is a “whole food” because it is minimally processed to retain its natural nutrition beyond protein. For example, a 30 gram serving meets the FDA requirements for being a “good source” of five B-vitamins, including a full day’s supply of B-12, and a “good source” of six essential minerals, such as iron, phosphorus and magnesium.

“Our cultured postbiotic protein ingredient is easily scalable, which ensures a steady supply, and is sustainably produced, which makes it affordable for companies to incorporate in their products ranging from dairy alternatives to baked goods,” said Bryan Tracy, the CEO and co-founder of Superbrewed Food. “Our ingredient performs exceptionally well in foods and beverages because it has a neutral taste with a natural white color, has excellent pH and temperature stability and can serve as an emulsifier to lend a creamy and smooth texture while boosting the overall nutritional value.”

Upcycled Ingredients

Sustainability is also the driving force behind the upcycled food movement, which promotes elevating food to its highest and best use. In fact, a study done by Foods found that 76% of consumers said they would be “willing” or “absolutely willing” to try food made with upcycled ingredients if such products had a lower environmental impact.

For example, Spare Tonic from The Spare Food Co. is an effervescent beverage made with surplus whey that is a co-product of strained yogurt production, plus only three other ingredients: fruit, spice and a touch of honey. The whey in this case is the functional ingredient, since it naturally provides a good source of protein, is rich in electrolytes including calcium, magnesium and potassium, and is an excellent source of vitamins B-12 and B-6. Spare Tonic has a natural 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio, which also makes it ideal as a post-workout recovery beverage.

The Upcycled Food Association recently launched an Upcycled Certified™ logo to help make it easier for consumers to identify products made with ingredients that have been upcycled.  Emerging brands include Renewal Mill, Regrained, Outcast Foods and CaPao.

Top Functional Foods

Food Technology Magazine recently identified 10 trends driving demand for functional foods. These included:

  1. Self-defense: immunity and probiotics
  2. Fit & ready: optimizing physical and mental performance with protein
  3. Sustainably healthy: food that is ethically produced and upcycled
  4. Conditions & connections: foods that support healthy aging and reduced disease risk
  5. Weighing in: interest in products that help manage weight
  6. The Plant-based plateau: getting back to less-processed plant proteins
  7. Alternatively clean: minimally processed, allergen-free, fewer ingredients
  8. Functional cooking: ingredients that help make healthy food preparation easier
  9. Mainstream niches: How functional foods are becoming mainstream on restaurant menus
  10. Inside out: foods and ingredients to support mental and emotional health

Overall consumer desire to eat healthier for improved physical and mental health will continue to propel functional food and beverage growth, particularly among younger consumers (age 13-39), who are reported to be the heaviest users according to YPulse research.

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Topics: Culinary, Trends, Health & Wellness


The Front Burner is a bi-monthly newsletter addressing the latest in food and beverage trends. This in-depth resource helps you stay current in this fast-evolving industry.

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