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Food makers developing taste for African plants

By Dominique Patton , 03-Jan-2006

Extracts of African fruits are sparking interest from food makers seeking new tastes and health properties, according to a plant expert.

Joerg Gruenwald of German firm analyze & realize (formerly Phytopharm Consulting) says trade associations are working to build the export market for African botanicals, and being helped by investment in bigger extraction facilities on the continent.

The volumes of African plant extracts being imported to Europe are difficult to estimate but are still far below that of Asia, which has a long-established tradition of herbal remedies. But in the last two to three years, some little known fruits and plants have emerged in European products and look set to see growing demand from food makers increasingly adding extracts to beverages especially.

"While the growth in herbal supplements and herbal medicines has slowed down generally to moderate growth figures of 4-6 per cent, strong growth is seen in the areas of functional food, specifically functional beverages," Gruenwald told NutraIngredients.com.

He estimates that sales of extracts to the food industry are growing by around 20 per cent.

Beverage makers are predominantly using natural and botanical active ingredients to boost energy and antioxidant levels and have anti-aging and relaxing effects. New ingredients from Africa offer several of these properties.

There are already some African plants becoming established in the herbal remedies sector. Umckaloabo, a medicinal plant taken as a natural antibiotic, is doing well in Germany and has entered new markets like the US in recent months.

Devil's claw, thought to help some of the symptoms of arthritis, is also becoming an established ingredient.

But there is also an interest in African fruits as a novel source of health benefits in foods.

"Africa is the most undeveloped continent for this market so there are many fruits that have been eaten there for a long time but haven?t made it to the mainstream food market," explained Gruenwald.

"Food companies are always looking for a good but different taste."

The baobab tree, for example, could offer several benefits as a new food ingredient.

"The pulp is high in vitamin C and it has a nice, fresh taste. It also dissolves in water easily," said Gruenwald.

An Italian company has been selling a baobab food powder for the last couple of years and some major players are looking into its addition to food products, he added, thanks to its promotion by the association PhytoTrade.

There is also growing interest in wild melon, which is being researched to find out whether it contains more active compounds than the melons consumed in large quantities in Europe.

"Research shows that often traditional botanicals are richer in chemical ingredients than the plants bred for consumption today," said Gruenwald.

Questions are however being raised about the regulatory status of these fruits in the European market. Typically any food that has not been consumed in the EU prior to 1997 must pass a strict safety test. However Gruenwald is hoping that an initiative to push for changes to the novel foods regulation so that it takes account of traditional use of foods outside of Europe will save the African plants from this lengthy process.

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