Smart Ingredients for a Healthy Brain

Maintaining the health of our brains as we age is a growing market for food & beverage products. Increasing evidence shows certain foods and ingredients can help nourish the brain and support cognitive health.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

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Brain health is one of the most important components in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, according to a 2014 study from American Assn. of Retired People (, Washington. As people age, they can experience various cognitive issues, from decreased critical thinking to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

This is top of mind for America’s baby boomers (ages 53-71) as they see, often first-hand, how dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are growing. Globally, around 50 million people have Alzheimer’s disease, and that figure is predicted to more than double to 125 million by 2050, according to new research from England’s University of Bath. Scientists there reviewed brain samples from people with and without Alzheimer’s and discovered a molecular link between glucose and the disease. The research suggests people who consume a lot of sugar but are not diabetic could be at an increased risk for the disease.

Thus, diet can have an effect on cognitive decline. So formulating foods and beverages with ingredients that can keep the brain functioning smoothly should really be a “no brainer.”


Nutrients that may help with cognition include omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are also good for the heart. Studies show that omega-3s, which are highly concentrated in the brain, help object recognition memory, spatial and conscious recall memories, such as facts and knowledge, and adverse response retention. Omega-3s are essential for a number of the body’s functions, but we don’t produce them naturally so we must consume them.

To that end, companies like Pinnacle Foods’ Udi’s Gluten Free (, Boulder, Colo., are incorporating them in products such as Omega Flax & Fiber gluten-free bread, filled with ancient grains and omega-3, 6 and 9, as well as protein, antioxidants and fiber.

plum organics dha baby foodBrain health starts with brain development. Good fats like omega-3 DHA, found throughout the body, are essential for children’s brain development and are being worked into commercial baby foods, formulas and kids’ foods and beverages. WhiteWave’s Horizon Organic ( low-fat chocolate milk features DHA omega-3 (docosahexaenoic acid), targeting young children in the early stages of cognitive growth. The milk has 32mg of DHA per 8-oz. serving.

Campbell Soup’s infants brand, Plum Organics (, Emeryville Calif., recently introduced Grow Well food with DHA for babies aged 6 months and up. Packed in easy-squeeze pouches, the smooth, unsweetened, organic product contains fruit purees, sunflower seed butter and 180g of the omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, the most common omega-3, from ground chia seeds) and 180mg of DHA algal oil.

Eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, is an omega-3 fatty acid essential for proper fetal development and healthy aging, and is prevalent in seafood, fish oil supplements and flax and chia seeds. Canola oil is the highest in omega-3 fatty acids of everyday cooking oils, with 1,300mg of ALA per tablespoon. The Institute of Medicine recommends getting at least 1,100mg of ALA a day for men and 1,600 for women.

Ongoing research on omega-3s and their role in brain health should help keep nuts on product formulators’ radar. Studies show walnuts delay the onset or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. They’re filled with antioxidants that kill harmful bacteria linked to chronic diseases and, like other nuts, may help prevent cancer and premature aging. Walnuts are also high in polyunsaturated fats, are versatile for cereals, snacks and snack bars, nut butter, bakery crusts or toppings for salads, meat, fish, pilafs and vegetables.

Vitamin E also may help prevent cognitive decline as we age. Nuts and seeds also are good sources of vitamin E, says Steven Pratt, on staff at Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, Calif., and author of Superfoods Rx: Fourteen Foods Proven to Change Your Life.

More than preventing cognitive decline, vitamin E may improve functional performance among those with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, some recent studies indicate.

‘Brain berries’

Cocoa flavanols are phytonutrients that work in a part of the brain associated with age-related memory. Found in consumer-pleasing ingredients such as high-cocoa chocolate, they provide several neuroprotective benefits, reports the National Center for Biotechnology Information (, Bethesda, Md.

blueberry bundlePositively affecting mood, cocoa flavanols contain antioxidant molecules (epicatechins) that enter the brain and induce widespread stimulation. Consuming brewed cocoa infused with caffeine can boost blood flow to the brain, which reduces anxiety and facilitates cognition, according to a study from Clarkson University and the University of Georgia. Their researchers found that participants who drank cocoa with caffeine performed the best of the group. “This project found that cocoa lessens caffeine’s anxiety-producing effects, a good reason to drink mocha lattes,” said Clarkson University’s Ali Boolani.

Blueberries and other purple and dark red fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, which offer anti-inflammatory properties and have high concentrations of anthocyanins, which fight free radicals and viruses, and contain flavonoids that enhance the health-promoting quality of foods.

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