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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

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 (www.aarp.org), 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 (www.udisglutenfree.com), 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 (www.horizon.com) 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 (www.plumorganics.com), 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 (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov), 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.
Blueberries also help increase neural signaling in the brain centers, affirms James Joseph, lead scientist in the Laboratory of Neuroscience at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “When it comes to brain protection, there’s nothing quite like blueberries. Call the blueberry the brain berry,” he says.

Recent studies led by Robert Krikorian at University of Cincinnati suggest that regular consumption of wild blueberries may slow the loss of cognitive function and decrease depression in the elderly, says the Wild Blueberry Assn. of North America (www.wildblueberries.com).
Pratt also calls blueberries brain berries. “They protect the brain from oxidative stress and may reduce the effects of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.” Pratt also likes avocados, saying they’re almost as good as blueberries for brain health.

The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (www.blueberrytech.org) echoes these assessments, adding that phytochemicals found in fruits like blueberries continue to be investigated for their health benefits in slowing the aging process and memory loss. Studies on blueberry-supplemented diets have shown measurable improvements in memory, coordination and balance as well as neuron regeneration.

Other brain boosters

Nancy Emerson-Lombardo of Boston University and the Brain Health and Wellness Center recently discussed how diet can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Brain health is profoundly affected by the health of the rest of the body, Emerson-Lombardo claims. “Brain foods” can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by five years.

She recommends plant foods (particularly green leafy vegetables, dried beans and berries), which prevent oxidation of omega-3 fatty acids, and fewer animal foods. Food formulators can look to whole grains, fish, nuts, flaxseed oil, spinach, chia seeds and soybeans as good sources of brain-healthy omegas. Vitamins B, C, D, E (d-alpha tocopherol) are very important as well, she points out.

PLT Health Solutions (www.plthealth.com), Morristown, N.J., is actively engaged in the cognitive health space with a range of ingredients relevant to various aspects of cognitive functioning. PLT’s Zembrin Sceletium tortuosum, which has GRAS status, is the first patented, standardized and clinically studied extract of Sceletium tortuosum available for functional foods and beverages that experientially supports enhanced mood and improved cognitive function, the company claims.

“Clinical trials studying Zembrin on the brain showed that 25mg of the extract reduced anxiety-related activity of brain neurons and its associated anxiety circuitry within two hours,” explains Barbara Davis, PLT’s vice president of medical and scientific affairs.

The trials show the extract’s potential in helping manage stress. “In the past year, two additional clinical studies have been published, demonstrating the effectiveness of this ingredient in cognitive health (specifically, stress reduction),” she says. PLT has invested more than $4 million to date in R&D readying Zembrin for North American commercialization.

A closer look at lutein, stimulants

Lutein, a yellow carotenoid, also can influence long-term brain health, research indicates. While typically known for improving eye health, lutein demonstrates a link between macular pigment density and general cognitive function in healthy elderly people.

Natural sources of lutein are green leafy vegetables and other green or yellow vegetables. Cooked kale and spinach top the list, according to the USDA. A large number of Americans aren’t receiving adequate levels of lutein in their everyday diets, and many aren’t familiar with lutein, reports the USDA Nutrient Database.

Astaxanthin, also a carotenoid, is said to guard certain brain functions associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Found in certain marine plants and animals, astaxanthin is said to be 50 times more powerful than beta-carotene for its antioxidant effects and its removal of free radicals in the body. Its highest natural concentration is found in wild Pacific sockeye salmon.

DSM Nutritional Products (www.dsm.com), Schenectady, N.Y., offers several ingredients that benefit the eyes and brain. Fortitech elaVida olive-based natural antioxidant is a versatile polyphenol made from olives in a proprietary solvent-free process. Life’s Omega60 DHA/EPA oil, made from algae, provides a vegetarian alternative to fish sources.

More is being discovered about caffeine’s ability to boost energy and focus. Coffee has been providing alertness for years. Caffeine activates neuro pathways and blocks receptors from a chemical called adenosine, which normally prevents the release of excitatory brain chemicals. Harvard University’s Medical School says with adenosine out of the way, these brain-sparking chemicals can flow more freely – providing a surge of energy and potentially improving mental performance while slowing age-related mental decline.

Ram Chaudhari, senior executive vice president and chief scientific officer at DSM, notes one of four young and seven in 10 elderly adults consume coffee, so the market is ready for more caffeinated products.

“With increasing demographic trends toward older populations, the underlying market demand for cognitive-boosting products is bound to increase substantially,” Chaudhari explains. “In the future, we are also likely to see more research into complementary medical approaches, such as using fortified products with proven cognitive benefit, along with traditional dementia treatments that impact cognitive function.”

BI Nutraceuticals (www.botanicals.com), Rancho Dominguez, Calif., is adding to its line of cognitive function ingredients, says Randy Kreienbrink, marketing vice president. BI is developing smoothies, bars and beverages with such memory boosters as yerba mate, ginkgo, sage, ginseng, grape seed, turmeric and St. John’s wort, among others.