Just last month, 7-Eleven added a new coffee to its hot beverage service. Caffeine provides only part of the kick; the rest comes from an infusion of ginseng, echinacea and astragalus — herbs that enjoy a reputation as cold and flu fighters. The brew, called Fusion Defense, reflects a new level of interest — and trust — consumers have in these medicinal plants.
“People have started to see natural earth products as better and safer,” said Charlie Coiner, owner of Rock Garden Herbs, a Miami-based grower and importer.
For supermarkets, the herb category is usually limited to fresh or dried leaves and flowers in the produce section or in the spice aisle. However, herbs are threading their way like vines into other products and categories, ranging from baby wipes to medicinal teas. 7-Eleven realized the power of herbs in February, when it introduced Fusion Energy.
“It was planned as sort of an in-out, but it was so popular, all of the stores said they want to keep it available,” said Margaret Chabris, the c-store chain's public relations director.
Fusion Energy, made with premium coffee, guarana, ginseng and yerba mate, was the brainchild of Donald Driver, 7-Eleven's coffee category manager.
“He saw how energy was growing in importance with the consumer in all kinds of formats,” Chabris said. “To him, it was clear consumers wanted more functionality in what they were putting into their bodies.”
Coiner agrees, noting that herbal energy drinks are best sellers in the non-carbonated market, and fresh sprigs are getting plenty of exposure in the produce department.
“Twenty years ago, you'd find a bunch of parsley and, in some of the large cities, maybe cilantro,” he said. “Now almost every retailer has an extensive selection of culinary herbs.”
A study released just last month bolsters the growing perception that there may be something to herbal remedies, even though marketers are prohibited by the Food and Drug Administration from making specific health claims. In this case, researchers evaluated the effect Chinese herbs have on menstrual cramps. The study found that a concoction that included red peony root, fennel fruit, cinnamon bark and other herbs was more effective than drugs, acupuncture or heat compression. In one of the 39 trials making up the survey, 53% of those who consumed the herbs reported a reduction in menstrual pain.
These and similar results have attracted the attention of large corporations. Coca-Cola announced the same week that it would begin an intense search in China for traditional medicines like herbs that could be incorporated into a new generation of healthful beverages. The company has gone so far as to open a permanent research facility at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing.