How Herbs are Enhancing Taste and Aroma with Health Benefits

Although the craving for foreign cuisines and fast food is prevalent in India, the trends in food flavours have undergone a drastic change in the past two years. From Pepsico’s Kurkure Chilli Achari which comes with a tangy taste of Indian pickle, to Amul’s Kool Elaichi drink, food companies seem to be experimenting with Indian taste palates, mostly targeting millennials. Furthermore, as the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way almost all industries operate, the food industry has been delving deeper into Indian cuisines. Indian companies, being the powerhouse of herbs, are at the forefront of innovations in food flavours. 

According to Mintel’s 2021 report, “Flavour exploration beyond convention in juice,” 74 per cent of global launches of shots in the past three years contained spicy flavours, with ginger and turmeric being the most common. Increasingly, herbs, spices, mushrooms, and roots with an earthy character are finding their way into drink bottles. Health, well-being, new flavour creations and enjoyment with a clear conscience are at the top of consumers’ wish lists. 

Overall, foods and beverages containing functional ingredients associated with a stronger immune system are popular among consumers, and flavours have been positively driving their acceptance.

“Indian herbs are the most trending taste enhancers, carrying multiple benefits. These herbs are very rich in phytoconstituents, having multiple properties like anti-oxidant and carminative effects. They are superior compared to artificial additives as well. The flavour market is still developing and offers multiple benefits for novices to flourish in this market. Additional factors such as awareness among users, present specific health and nutritional needs are strongly benefiting the food and beverage sector, which, in turn, are promoting the overall market. There is a huge demand for new varieties, mainly in the health foods and beverages, a trend which is expected to continue in the future,” said Dr Rashmi Saxena Pal, Associate Professor, Lovely Professional University.

Industry’s favourite ingredients 

The natural basil flavour is an excellent natural ingredient that is widely applicable in a variety of plant-based meals and meat alternatives, including plant-based burgers, sausages, nuggets, cold cuts, bread spreads, and ready meals. It helps to maintain the quality of food products throughout their entire shelf-life. 

Basil is a common ingredient in many food products, including pizzas, soups, salads, and tulsi tea. The flavour of basil comes mainly from the essential oils in the herb. One of the primary molecules in basil leaves is estragole, which makes up over 50 per cent of the essential oils and gives basil its distinctive aroma. 

While sharing his thoughts on his study titled “Use of basil (tulsi) as flavouring ingredient in the manufacture of ice cream”, Vishal Trivedi, a scientist at the National Dairy Development Board, said, “There is a tendency amongst consumers to assume a high degree of confidence in the safety of natural flavours compared to those based on chemicals. Incorporation of natural flavouring ingredients such as basil in ice cream will help in improving the nutritional and medicinal value of ice cream. Our investigation was planned to evaluate the suitability of basil in juice and powder form as a flavouring agent in ice cream and to study the effect on certain physicochemical and sensory characteristics of ice cream. It was found that the addition of basil juice resulted in a progressive decrease in fat, protein, total carbohydrate, total solids, ash, acidity, and melting resistance as well as an increase in pH. The experimental ice cream samples also had very high consumer acceptability as inferred from the consumer acceptance trial.”

Mint is another favourite flavour of the food industry. Traditional Iranian medicine recognises Mentha species for their cooling-sensation properties that strengthen the stomach and relieve digestive symptoms, respiratory tract problems and haemorrhoids. In the diet, mint is an excellent replacement for salty, sugary, or high-calorie flavourings. Mint-flavoured chewing gum and breath mints are the most prominent food items in the market. 

In the flavour industry, mint is most commonly used to create a wide range of candies and other confectionary items. Mint can be found in various types of chocolate and is also used in desserts such as mint chocolate-chip, mint ice creams, chocolate cookies with mint cream filling, and much more. Additionally, mint is increasingly common in products such as soups, stews, and sauces.

The increasing global demand for natural and organic products is  driving the growth of the mint essential oil market. As a result, producers of mint-based products are incentivised to invest in sustainable supply chains, to  meet the rising demand for high-quality mint oil. 

Cardamom, a highly-flavoured spice, is commonly used in Indian sweets, milk and milk products (like khoa, gulab jamun, sandesh, basundi, bakery products, cakes, bread, flavoured pickles, rice and meat preparations, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, frozen desserts, candies, puddings, condiments, relishes, gravies, and more. 

Cardamom flavour is commonly added to processed foods through the use of essential oils or solvent-extracted cardamom oleoresin. The essential oils, which are primarily composed of α-terpinyl acetate are responsible for the aroma and flavour of cardamom.  

Cardamom cultivation in India is largely concentrated in the Western Ghats region, spanning across Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Kerala accounts for 60 per cent of the cultivation and production followed by Karnataka with 30 per cent and Tamil Nadu with 10 per cent. 

Saffron, known as Kashmir’s golden herb, is one of the most valuable and expensive spices used worldwide as a flavouring, colouring, and aroma agent in food and drinks.  Saffron-infused products such as saffron-honey, Kesar shrikhand, and saffron milk are highly sought after by consumers. The distinct taste of saffron is attributed to a substance called picrocrocin. Although other compounds in saffron, such as flavonoids, have been identified as contributing to its taste, their content is relatively low compared to picrocrocin. These compounds are structurally related to picrocrocin and flavonoids. 

According to Samad Ghaffari, Director of Cardiac Catheterization and Intervention Laboratory at Madani Heart Hospital in Iran, “Saffron as a natural product has long been used to impede and treat different disorders, including cardiovascular diseases (CVDs).” Saffron stigma, the most important part of the plant, contains various compounds such as carotenoids and flavonoids that have been found to have  antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-atherogenic, anti-apoptotic, anti-hypertensive, and hypolipidemic effects.  He said the pharmacological effects of saffron are due to several ingredients, including safranal, crocetin and crocins.

Adding to this list is ginger – a highly demanded ingredient in the international market, primarily due to its pleasant odour and distinctive taste. While ginger  has a long history of traditional medicinal use, it is now widely used as a functional ingredient in soda, sparkling coffee, juice, frozen yogurts, gelato products, and various cuisines. Due to its strong taste, many non-alcoholic beers include ginger as an ingredient. Moreover, the increasing health awareness among consumers  has created a demand for ready-to-drink detox products that often feature ginger for its spiciness and refreshing flavour, offering new opportunities for companies to explore its usages.

India is a leading producer of ginger globally, with cultivation taking place in most Indian states. However, Karnataka, Orissa, Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat together account for 65 per cent of the country’s total production. Ginger contains around 2 per cent essential oil, with zingiberene being the principal component, while the pungent principle of the spice is zingerone. The oil is distilled from rhizomes for use in the food and perfume industries. 


Although Indian flavouring herbs are gaining popularity in both the domestic and international food industry, there are still significant challenges that need to be addressed to unlock their full potential. One major obstacle is the issue of adulteration, which is eroding the reputation of Indian herbs on the global stage. 

Speaking about the saffron fraud in India, Amjad M. Husaini, a scientist at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology in Jammu & Kashmir, said, “Adulteration remains a significant challenge for the saffron industry. The best quality saffron is usually sold in filaments. The most common fraudulent practice involves artificially dyeing some selected plant materials, to make them look similar to saffron. According to a study on saffron sold in India, only 52 per cent are genuine, 30 per cent are poor grade, and 17 per cent are adulterated. This menace of saffron adulteration is mushrooming as a white-collar fraud at a tremendous pace.”

In addition, saffron production is declining due to bacterial contamination in one of the major production areas, Kashmir. Similarly, the productivity of cardamom has been showing a declining trend due to environmental changes in recent years. Natural disasters such as droughts, rainfall and snowfall, along with the occurrence of fungal and viral diseases are making the situation worse. 

In such a scenario, technology and policy interventions are crucial. Boosting the yield of flavouring herbs is not the only focus; maintaining the quality of produce, refining agricultural technology, implementing brand-new marketing activities, and increasing farmers’ income are also equally important. 

The future of the Indian flavours market depends on the launch of novel foods and beverages containing healthy and functional ingredients. Every year, trendy new combinations of spices and herbs come to the forefront. Consumers desire, as authentic and traditional a flavour, as possible. The use of ethnic condiments will continue to grow, driven by the great demand from millennials, who always seek something new.

Mansi Jamsudkar


Image credit- shutterstock

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