Consumers Look To Food For Brain Health

Consumer quest for preserving brain health is propelling awareness of ingredients to maintain or improve cognitive function.

By Kantha Shelke, Ph.D.

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Consumers increasingly are hungry for foods and beverages that promise to boost cognitive abilities. Better known as “smart foods,” “cognitive boosters” and “brain enhancers,” but technically referred to as “nootropics,” they increase the brain’s supply of neurochemicals by either enhancing oxygen supply to the brain or by stimulating nerve growth.

This emerging trend in the functional food sector offers immense opportunities for strong niche brands founded on good science and will undoubtedly bloom as high-paced lifestyles and stress continue to drive demand.


Concentrate … on the web

Find out more about ingredients that help you concentrate, focus and think better. The search term “memory” will get you 81 well-focused hits on “Cognition” will bring you 62 more.

Ingredients at the forefront of brain research are advancing food and beverage applications to nourish the brain and stimulate, enhance, extend or relax mental functions. New findings indicate that decline in cognitive function and memory loss, once thought to be irreversible and the bane of aging, aren’t necessarily inevitable or irreversible and may be prevented by health-promoting nutrition. The food industry is accelerating development of products to help boost brainpower, slow the aging of the brain and stave off dementia.
Nerve cells rely on neurotransmitters to convey information between them. An inadequate amount of any neurotransmitter can cause a breakdown in the transmission process and result in loss of mental and neural abilities. With aging, certain neurotransmitters decline along with diminishing cognitive abilities, including learning, memory and the ability to focus and execute functions such as planning, thinking, decision-making and problem solving.
A number of factors contribute to the risk of neurodegeneration and cognitive decline. Aging is the primary reason. Given the predominance of baby boomers, it is no surprise securing proper cognitive function has become important for consumers today.

Cause and effect


Coffee, tea or mate?

Caffeine continues to be the top choice to boost alertness and cognitive abilities. Propel Fitness Water, Chicago, launched Propel Invigorating Water in strawberry, citrus and berry flavors for consumers seeking caffeinated, low-calorie beverages. Each 20-oz. bottle contains the same amount of caffeine as a cup of tea (50mg), but also vitamins B6, niacin and pantothenic acid to help boost energy. But the fast-acting stimulant caffeine also is associated with rapid energy crashes and jitteriness.
Beverages from Boulder, Colo.-based Pixie Mate use the South American herb yerba maté to provide sustained energy boost without the jitteriness associated with caffeine.

The environment contributes to chronic stress and cognitive decline. Genetic makeup and lifestyle, including diet and activity, also play important roles. Deficiencies in nutrients essential to brain function and vitality influence cognitive decline. But lifestyle and diet reform can substantially slow the rate of decline. Another issue is the number of neural conditions plaguing society today. The National Institute of Aging (NIA) estimates 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the most common form of neurodegenerative dementia. The disease generally commences after age 60; older people are at greater risk. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a syndrome characterized by inability to focus, restlessness and frequent mood swings, affects 3.5 million children in the U.S. ADHD is becoming a leading cause of school failure, under-achievement and behavioral difficulties. The third most common neurodegenerative disorder is Parkinson’s disease (PD) which, according to the NIA, affects more than 1 million people in the U.S. older than 50. Inflammation is believed the likely cause of neurodegenerative conditions and loss of mental ability. Inflammation of blood vessels to the brain leads to plaque and hardened arteries (atherosclerosis) and a sequential shutdown of brain functions. Today’s obesity epidemic means more people are facing conditions like atherosclerosis at younger ages, with onset as early as 10 years of age. Mounting evidence shows certain foods and nutrients can prevent inflammation and help delay the onset of brain health issues.

From pharm to table


Caffeine, the classic energy ingredient, is being re-evaluated as an enhancer of memory and focus.”

Savvy companies are creating products that straddle the beverage and dietary supplement zones and beckon target audiences effectively with key messages about brain health such as alertness and concentration. A number of foods and nutrients have emerged as critical for brain foods. The functionality of the ingredients plays a key role to their placement within the category. Pharmaceutical companies have been developing targeted solutions to brain and neural issues for decades. More recently, the research community has begun to pay attention to foods and supplements as a viable   and possibly safer   solution. A number of clinical trials are under way to explore the merits of phytonutrients and botanicals in delaying or even preventing these debilitating conditions. Antioxidants can protect brain cells from the damage caused by free radicals – breakdown products from foods, tobacco, radiation and exposures to chemicals. Clinical studies show CoQ10 is an antioxidant that slows neurodegeneration and helps maintain healthy mitochondria. Until recently, its insolubility in water limited its application in beverages. Zymes LLC, Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., resolved the issue with its patented water-soluble HQO, employing nanotechnology to readily solubilize significant quantities of CoQ10 in water and lend it greater bioavailability. CoQ10 is beneficial for many: CoQ10 levels decrease during aging and markedly in individuals with AD and PD.

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