While these ingredients often get placed on what seems like a newly built pedestal, the truth is, most of them haven’t exactly gone from zero to hero overnight. “Lots of popular [ingredients] out there that we learn about come from other cultures, like Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine [both centuries-old practices]—and that just goes to show how much we can learn from others,” says Robin Foroutan, RDN, an integrative medicine dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
While many of these above-mentioned ingredients could only be found at an herbalist or acupuncturist's office, the wellness industry has propelled them into the limelight over the past 10 years—and into practically everything we eat, drink, or use on our skin.
Why people look to 'hero' ingredients
Nate Favini, MD, medical lead at Forward, feels that medicine has traditionally focused on disease prevention rather than how to use diet, exercise, or natural remedies to promote health. But now, we're starting to understand that what we put in our mouths (or on our skin) truly matters for our overall well-being. “As a result, consumers are looking to other sources of wisdom and alternative modes of medical practice for answers," Dr. Favini says.
Additionally, as the general interest in health and wellness has grown to become a $4.2 trillion global industry, Beth Bluestone, RDN, a dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Wellness, says that some people have been looking for more nutritious and healthy ingredients to incorporate into their lifestyles. This started with the "superfood" movement of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Brands like POM Wonderful, which sells pomegranate arils and juice, commissioned their own studies about the health benefits of their products (such as their antioxidant content) and launched hugely successful marketing campaigns to promote these lofty findings to the wider public. Other foods formerly unfamiliar to American consumers, like kale and quinoa, got similar treatment from experts, industry advocacy groups, and celebrities, and it paid off—to the point where there were temporary shortages of these extremely in-demand items.
But as kale becomes cliché, the pomegranate loses its rosy glow, and brands and consumers peel their eyes for the "next big thing," they often turn to other cultures for inspiration, as Foroutan says. Suddenly, what's old is new again: The medicinal use of turmeric dates back more than 4,000 years. Similarly, Japanese and Chinese cultures have used matcha (a powdered green tea) for centuries to protect against conditions like stress, headaches, and even heart disease. Medicinal mushrooms like reishi also have roots in Eastern medicinal practices. Indigenous cultures in South America, meanwhile, have consumed maca (also known as Peruvian ginseng) both as a food staple and as a fertility booster for thousands of years. As more people have started to show interest in these types of remedies, scientific studies have started to examine the effects of these ingredients on human subjects (and not just through in vitro or animal studies), to get some modern insight on their benefits.
“It's too early to say if any super ingredient really represents a breakthrough, but thankfully, the science is starting to catch up [to the claims],” says Dr. Favini. Science generally supports the health-promoting advantages of items like turmeric and green tea, showing their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant (aka disease-fighting) capabilities. A systematic review also recently found that collagen can provide skin benefits, like maintaining elasticity and hydration and helping with wound healing. CBD is a little trickier—not many large, human-based studies support all the claims on cannabis. It shows promise for alleviating pain and anxiety, but we need more scientific support (and federal regulation) to say it's 100-percent a good idea for your health.
The limitations of ingredient worship
But scientific research is slow, and if something is buzzing, brands often doesn't wait for definitive proof of the benefits before adding it into...everything. Take CBD. Even before it was legalized at the end of 2018, sales of CBD grew more than 300 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to a market report from the American Botanical Council and the wellness-focused data company SPINS. Despite limited research and ongoing debate over legal gray areas, it was easily one of the biggest trends at 2019's Expo West, a massive annual natural food and products convention—Well+Good editors saw CBD in supplements as well as brownies, cold brews, skin-care products, and even air purifiers.
Of course, CBD isn't the only ingredient that brands have capitalized on due to its buzz; even when ingredients have been shown to work, there is still a ton of misuse. Drinking a soda that has turmeric or ashwagandha in it might be delicious, but if it still has a ton of sugar or additives in it, it's likely not going to do a ton of extra favors for your health, presence of trendy ingredients be damned. That's not to say these ingredients are bad or unhealthy at all—it's how they're being used that matters.
It’s also important to note that no one ingredient, no matter how much it seems to help your health, can save anyone from generally unhealthy habits. Even if you eat kale every day or slather a vitamin-C-laced serum on your face, experts agree those individual things in isolation are not enough to bolster your well-being without an overall healthy diet, exercise regimen, and stress-reducing practices. “Eating healthfully...is the best thing you can do for your health," says Dr. Favini. "If you’re doing that, you don’t have to worry about missing out on the latest health trend.”
The new hero ingredients yet to come
Most experts believe these stand-out foods and supplements will stick around: As long as people continue to strive to improve their health or better their everyday lives, they will still look to new ingredients that promote well-being.
Foroutan sees a few new ones popping up in 2020. She predicts the next big berry will be the maqui berry. A native of South America, this berry is high in antioxidants and has properties similar to the goji berry, another superfood that’s gained popularity over the past decade.
She also believes nicotinamide, aka NAD, a form of vitamin B, will gain a following in the coming years. It can potentially help the mitochondria in your cells make ATP, which the body needs for energy to help with basic functions, healing, and repair—making it a favorite in the biohacking world. You can currently find it as an oral capsule from brands like Tru Niagen or Elysium Health.
While science works on catching up to the popularity of many of the hero ingredients we see today, you can keep adding them your plate, beauty routines, and fitness regime—just remember that they won’t cure all of life’s problems. You need to look at the big picture for that.
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