Trish Fortuna was skeptical when her husband returned from his garden one day with a plan to sell water infused with some of his flowers.
"No one wants to drink perfume," she said.
But she learned flowers, like herbs and other plants, have long been a dietary staple in many cultures, not only flavoring foods and drinks but serving as folk therapies for a range of health maladies.
Less than two years later, Massachusetts-based Blossom Water joins a growing collection of products with floral flavors headed to grocery shelves. Some, like Fortuna's company, target health-conscious buyers with flavors from the yard, not the factory, but others point to clinical research showing specific health benefits.
Market watchers will get their first glimpse of the trend this week at the Natural Products Expo East, held annually at the Baltimore Convention Center. Thousands of large and small retailers are expected to peruse foods, beverages, beauty products and home items from more than 1,800 exhibitors at this year's event, which started Wednesday runs through Saturday.
Analysts at New Hope Natural Media, a leading provider of industry information and the expo's sponsor, say sales of natural, organic and so-called functional foods that make health claims are now growing in double digits annually. More than $123 billion in sales are estimated for 2015.
Jenna Blumenfeld, a New Hope senior food editor, noticed the flower trend this year, mostly in beverages, but also in treats like chocolates and popcorn.
"Floral ingredients are being incorporated into new natural products both because of health and flavor," she said. "In other cases, floral flavors are used to differentiate and stand out in the crowded beverage category."
Product makers, however, must be careful not to overstate the health benefits. They can't claim that a product will treat or alleviate disease, or the product will be treated as a drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meaning the maker must offer a high level of scientific evidence for safety and efficacy. The Federal Trade Commission has gone after companies for exaggerating study results, including, for example, POM Wonderful for claims about heart benefits from pomegranate juice and Dannon for ads about digestive health from a daily cup of Activia yogurt.
Independent scientists have produced studies showing benefits to consuming some flowers. Among them: A 2009 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology found chamomile reduced anxiety; a 2008 study in the Journal of Nutrition found hibiscus lowered blood pressure; and a 2004 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine found elderflower reduced flu symptoms.
Many observers agree that more studies are needed, and research continues as flowers gain speed as a culinary trend, said Sara Haas, a Chicago-based registered dietitian, chef and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"Definitive research on the nutritional benefits on many of these flowers isn't available," she said. "From those analyses, it does show that flowers contain differing levels of minerals and antioxidants, but … the searchable nutrition analysis is limited and in the form of teas and waters."
Haas said flowers' vivid colors may mean, like fruits and vegetables, they contain antioxidants, though types and levels aren't well known and processing could affect the properties. Some flowers may interact negatively with some medicines or health conditions, so she recommends those with medical concerns check with a doctor or dietitian.
Even without specific health benefits, flowers could add flavor and aroma without adding calories, and that would be especially beneficial if the waters and teas replaced sugar-laden sodas in consumers' diets, said Chris D'Adamo, director of research for the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Medicine and an assistant professor in the School of Medicine's Department of Family and Community Medicine.
He said long-term health studies are difficult because researchers have to study people for such long periods, but he believes there already are some proven benefits.
"With hibiscus, for example, there have been human trials looking at its ability to lower blood pressure," he said. "More studies are needed, but there is some evidence there. There is some pretty good research for other flowers, too."
D'Adamo said benefits aren't well known to most consumers because many flower-containing products are new.
For those who go looking for flower-infused products, he recommends reading nutrition labels to ensure they contain significant amounts of the desired ingredients, avoiding giving them to infants, who could suffer ill effects, and looking for the USDA organic seal. Like teas, the flowers tend to be concentrated and could contain large amounts of pesticides, the long-term consequences of which are not fully known.
"We do know that waters and teas can be great substitutes for soda," he said, provided that they also don't include a lot of sugar. "And even if we don't have all the nutritional information, people can enjoy the combination of taste and fragrance."
Many of the new products are lightly sweetened with a combination of fruits and other ingredients, including alternative sweeteners such as stevia, which comes from a plant.
Manufacturers also now tend to be cognizant of over-pitching health benefits, said Daniel Sullivan, founder and CEO of New York-based Temple Turmeric, which infuses in all its products a special Hawaiian-grown variety of turmeric, a plant that research shows has anti-inflammatory qualities.
He pays attention to the studies — and conducts some of his own — when deciding which new elements will "support a positive inflammation response." His newest product is called Hibiscus Berry-Ade, a drink that includes flowers and blueberries.
"It's always easier to have that traction established," he said of credible clinical studies. "It helps market our product."
Sullivan also agrees that the beverage market is crowded — his drinks were in the cooler at a Baltimore-area Whole Foods grocery next to dozens of other waters and teas with pleasing colors and mixtures of fruits, vegetables, plants, herbs and now flowers.
Consumers may have to sample to find drinks that suit them, especially since flower flavors are not always familiar. Fermented teas, such as kombucha, can be tart and overpower added flowers. Others imitate familiar drinks like soda or lemonade, ranging from subtly to extra sweet, depending on the sweeteners used.
Sullivan aims to stand out by being transparent about what is in the product and what is not. In addition to his blend of turmeric, all other drink ingredients are organic and do not include genetically modified organisms, another hot-button designation still under scientific scrutiny.
The hibiscus drink is the company's foray into a more mainstream audience, he said, as it adheres to Temple Turmeric's hard-core health ethos but also has a color, taste and aroma that "gives off a gentle suggestion of wellness that comes from the flower, a kind of homeopathic effect."