The botanicals market is blooming, but regulation is proving a challenge

June 5, 2022
5 min read
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The botanicals market is blooming, but regulation is proving a challenge

Food and beverage brands are constantly seeking new ways to stand out in a crowded market. New products and formats. New ingredients and flavours. Watching and adapting to market trends, while introducing consumers to something different.

One of the major current influences on NPD is vegan food and flexitarian eating. 40% of North American consumers are incorporating more plant-based foods into their diet and 1 in 5 Britons are keen to embrace animal-free alternatives.

In their bid to expand and diversify plant-based ranges, an increasing number of brands are including botanicals in their recipes.

But while botanicals pack a flavour punch, incorporating them into food and drink is not always straightforward. The reported health and wellbeing properties of many botanical ingredients can make compliance complex, and brands must tread carefully to ensure product claims meet industry regulations.

What are botanicals – and what products are they used in?

Botanical is a term used to describe ingredients that have been obtained from a plant for either medicinal or flavouring purposes. Botanicals have been an important addition to medicine and skincare products for decades, but it’s only in the past ten years or so that their popularity has increased in the food and beverage industry.

Most consumers associate botanicals with alcohol, as they’re often used to flavour spirits. For example, Sacred Spirits uses angelica, orris root, cinnamon and frankincense in its classic gin, and orange peel, cubeb and star anise in its whisky liqueur blend. They’re also widely used to flavour alcohol-free spirits such as Seedlip and Bax Botanics.

Read more on product innovation in the non-alcoholic beverage sector.

Now, brands are getting bolder with their use of botanicals, fuelled by increasing consumer interest in plant-based products. In fact, botanicals was the leading ingredient category for global organic product launches in 2021.

We’re now seeing botanicals appearing in a much broader range of products. For example:

  • Daughters of Botany is branching out from skincare into botanical tea
  • No1 Botanicals is infusing water with pure botanical extracts to create low-calorie, no-sugar alternatives to mainstream soft drinks
  • BTR Nation is using ashwagandha and reishi mushroom powder in its protein bars
  • Ora Organic is incorporating botanical ingredients into its wellness products
  • Botanical Bones is even bringing botanicals into its pet food

Are botanicals a Novel Food?

Although botanicals provide exciting new flavour sensations in the highly competitive food and drink market, brands need to be cautious when formulating botanical recipes. Not all ingredients will be automatically recognised as safe for consumption in consumer markets – which may affect the regulations that producers must comply with.

For example, in the UK and Europe, any ingredient not widely consumed before 1997 and not already on the Novel Foods list will be treated as a Novel Food. Brands must apply for authorisation before products containing that ingredient can be sold to consumers, and it takes at least a year for Novel Foods to gain approval. Sometimes more if the foodstuff is complex (like we’ve seen with CBD).

Brands can also face setbacks when using an ingredient that’s common in some parts of the world but unfamiliar in others (such as sorghum syrup). And they may find that the Novel Food ingredients they’re interested in can only be used in food supplements, not food products.

Some surprising ingredients have been classed as Novel Foods in recent years, such as barley rice protein as an alternative to wheat flour or in plant-based milks. The use case of ingredients can affect their status as well: chia seeds are classed as a Novel Food when used in some products (such as chocolate and fruit spreads), and the husk from the coffee cherry is a Novel Food – but the pulp is categorised as a Traditional Food.

Are botanicals good for your health?

Another challenge faced by brands exploring botanical ingredients is the type of claims they can make about their products, based on their regulatory classification.

For example, valerian root has a long history of being used as a relaxation aid and is sometimes marketed as a botanical solution to help people sleep better. However, some brands have registered valerian root with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which means it is regulated as a traditional herbal medicine rather than a food.

Valerian root is one example of how cultural beliefs and formal legal frameworks can be problematic for brands exploring botanical properties.

Herbal extracts have played an important role in human healthcare all over the world in systems like Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. But the rise of western medicine, scientific methodologies and the rigid regulation of healthcare products have led to herbal wellbeing solutions being commercialised – and subject to regulatory frameworks.

Suddenly botanicals like turmeric/haldi and gentian root that have been used for centuries to aid common ailments like indigestion and inflammation are being promoted as emerging ingredients.

And while UK and EU regulators recognise these plants (and others) have positive effects on people’s wellbeing, the mechanisms of achieving positive results aren’t yet fully understood.

As a result, botanical claims that could be a brand’s route to market are on hold until further notice.

In an effort to harmonise belief systems around plant-based properties, the European Federation of Associations of Health Product Manufacturers (EHPM) has suggested a multitiered assessment of botanical health claims. However, plans currently await approval from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which believes more robust methodologies are needed to assess complex foodstuffs.  

How can brands incorporate botanical ingredients into new products?

Global awareness of the relationship between food and personal wellbeing is higher than ever, and consumers are open-minded to trying new flavour combinations – particularly if there are added health benefits. However, any brands interested in using botanicals need a strong understanding of the regulations that surround their chosen ingredients.

To successfully bring botanical food and drink products to market, it’s important to thoroughly research the classification of ingredients early on in the product innovation process. Otherwise, NPD could be held back by regulatory red tape at best, or result in an unsaleable product at worst.

Working with a food compliance agency like Hooley Brown can smooth the new product development process, as regulation experts understand the legal impact of using certain botanical ingredients – and can suggest compliant alternatives if necessary.

Even for brands launching botanical products that meet Traditional and Novel Food legislation, ingredient choices can still impact packaging and marketing content. A compliance specialist can assist here as well, developing product claims that meet industry requirements while highlighting the benefits of botanicals to the consumer.

Book a free phone call with Hooley Brown to discuss your product innovation plans.

This blog post was written in June 2022. Facts were correct at the time of writing.

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