New ways of using herbs tipped to fuel market growth further

Vitacress herb production workers

Herb producers and buyers could benefit from market concerns around sugar and salt

Tony Reid Vitacress
Tony Reid, Vitacress

Worries over sugar, salt and synthetic additives are prompting UK consumers and food manufacturers to turn to herbs as an acceptable alternative, alongside the already growing use of herbs in a wider variety of food and drink for that tasty, healthy kick. Produce Business UK investigates the herb market and the various applications for fresh and dried formats

Several large food processors such as Unilever have already amended their recipes to reduce salt intake by using herbs instead. Greater attention is also being paid to the use of stevia as a natural sweetener. Drinks manufacturer Tropicana, for example, is reported to be using stevia instead of sugar in one of its orange juice drinks.

Sales of both fresh and dried herbs are benefiting as a result, and herbs are increasingly being used not just in food but in the creation of smoothies and teas. In general, they are seen as a good source of flavour and health benefits as well as being able to enhance the taste and appearance of meat and vegetable dishes, soups, sauces and roasts. Many herbs also fit into contemporary eating trends, such as Paleo and Sirtfood diets.

Moreover, the trend of ‘root to shoot’ cooking could increase sales of fresh herbs still further as people become aware of new ways to use herbs, added to the nutritional and taste advantages of using parts of herbs that might otherwise have been thrown away. 

Promoting herb usage

By encouraging consumers to look at new ways of using herbs, major UK supplier Vitacress reports that its Herbalicious campaign is proving extremely successful in generating sales of fresh herbs, especially pots to take home. The website attracts around 40,000 visitors each month.

Tony Reid, head of marketing at Vitacress, says: “We are planning to extend the Herbalicious project this year and to introduce more PR activity. We will be working with food bloggers and focusing on the top five herbs to reinforce usage. We will also be reinforcing world cuisine to link in with the [Rio 2016] Olympics movement, and stressing fresh fruit cocktails at sporting events this summer.” 

With shoppers willing to try new herb varieties and mixes, especially when given ideas about how to use them, making it easy to buy herbs is proving crucial to the market’s development.

Vitacress has found that its retail fixtures, in particular, have provided the impetus for many consumers to buy herbs, with Reid claiming the firm’s fresh herb fixture looks “fantastic” in stores.

“It encourages people to impulse buy,” he explains. “The mixed packs of herbs are very popular and we expect to see more mixes becoming available this year. Retailers are very favourable towards this initiative. They see it as an advantage to have an attractive fixture as it gives consumers the confidence to use herbs.”

Market performance

Kantar indicates that total herb sales in the UK are rising by 18% year on year; giving an overall market of £70 million. But Vitacress believes actual figures could be higher than that – as much as £100m. The company already supplies over 16m freshly potted herbs annually, together with over 23m packs of fresh-cut and bunched herbs.

In terms of popularity, coriander is the most used herb, followed by rosemary, basil, parsley, mint and sage, according to Vitacress. Indeed, chef Dev Biswal, of the Michelin-starred Ambrette restaurant in Kent, says coriander is the most versatile and most popular herb he uses in his kitchen.

“Coriander is a multi-use herb, which is easy to grow and you can have it on your windowsill for quick access,” Biswal points out. “You can use all the herb, not just the leaves as the stalks add crunch and zing. It’s great with any food and is very good in chutney.”

Vitacress has noticed sales of lemongrass and lime leaves have grown significantly too.  Demand for lime leaves is now at around 15-18% of the overall market, partly fuelled by consumer interest in oriental, Indian and Mexican cuisines since it’s a popular herb in almost every dish. People seeking to create authentic Mexican dishes also often find themselves using coriander rather than the traditional cilantro, which has very similar leaves and taste.

Dried herbs

Demand for dried herbs is equally strong, and the category is therefore regarded as a key part of the overall market for herbs. Chef Biswal believes dried herbs have a lot to offer too. “Drying intensifies the taste of many herbs,” he notes. “Once you use it in a dish, you are simply rehydrating the herb.”

Already a store cupboard essential for many food manufacturers, chefs, foodservice operators and consumers, and coupled with the increase in popularity of home cooking, dried herbs and blends are experiencing a boost in sales, according to Christine Peers, sales director at EHL Ingredients.

Currently, the most popular dried herbs at EHL Ingredients are oregano, parsley, sage, thyme and rosemary, which are widely used by foodservice chefs and food manufacturers to add to frozen or chilled meals and accompaniments, meals kits and prepared food.  

Almost every consumer has a range of dried herbs at home too, and often this is a way of trying out different combinations. Once they have done so, consumers will often move onto using fresh herbs on special occasions. Meanwhile, all-in-one seasoning mixes are popular with younger consumers who lack the confidence to create their own variations.

EHL Ingredients New Blends of dried herbs

Herbal tea

At the same time, herbal teas are growing in popularity. Euromonitor’s 2016 report, Tea in the United Kingdom, indicates that sales of traditional black standard tea declined by 2% in 2015 due partly to the fact that it was not seen as fashionable.

Herbal and fruit teas, meanwhile, took up the slack in sales since these are regarded as being healthier. They also appeal to a younger generation of tea drinkers. Consumers are also attracted to fruit and herbal teas because of their wider variety of tastes; they offer a changing mix of exciting infusions and new product developments that are seen as more interesting than standard black tea.

Herbal teas tend to command premium prices and are often presented in variety packs, which enables consumers to try a wide selection without having to buy in large quantities.

Indigo Herbs of Glastonbury suggests its most popular herbal teas include: hemp, Pau d’Arco, red clover, gingko and mugwort. The natural health products supplier is also finding that there has been a massive rise in demand for plant-based nutritional herbs, such as spirulina and hemp – a sector which Indigo sees as being ripe for expansion.

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