Fats, Oils, Omegas / Ingredients and Formulation / Nutrition Trends / Fortifications and Minerals

How Smart are your Cognitive Health Products?

Cognition is still underrepresented as a health benefit for foods and beverages, but some niche players are tapping into its potential.

By Pan Demetrakakes, Contributing Editor

Mark Twain once gave this advice to an aspiring author: “Yes, Agassiz does recommend authors to eat fish, because the phosphorus in it makes brain. ... If the specimen composition you send is about your fair usual average, I suggest that perhaps a couple of whales would be all you would want for the present.”

Modern consumers who want to link nutrition with cognitive health can do so in a more realistic (and less insulting) way.

Cognition, in aspects like memory, alertness and concentration, has been touted as a benefit of certain foods and food ingredients for a long time. Categories of food that supposedly benefit cognitive health run the gamut from soup (bone broth, especially with curcumin-bearing spices like turmeric) to nuts (walnuts, almonds and others rich in omega-3 fatty acids).

But when it comes to explicit messaging in foods and beverages, cognition lags behind other health benefits. There is no organization with an agenda to push “brain-healthy” foods the way the American Heart Association does with “heart-healthy” ones, complete with a logo for products that meet the AHA’s nutritional standards. Even omega-3 fatty acids are more likely to be touted for their benefits to the heart than the brain.

When it comes to cognitive health marketing, most of the action is in nutritional supplements rather than food. According to an estimate by Euromonitor, when it comes to products marketed with potential cognitive health benefits, nutritional supplements have sales roughly five and a half times higher than foods and beverages.

The same goes for product launches. “The supplements category continues to dominate the cognitive health space, with food and beverage launches still only representing a small fraction of the market,” Robin Wyers, director of Innova Market Insights, wrote for Vitafoods. According to Innova, for the last few years, launches of nutritional supplements for cognitive health have gone up almost 100 percent annually; for foods and beverages, the corresponding figure is less than 10 percent.

Industry observers say consumers interested in specific health benefits are more likely to gravitate toward supplements, perceiving them as more targeted and efficient. In addition, there have been some high-profile fiascoes relating to food and cognition, such as Kellogg having to retract claims that Frosted Mini-Wheats increase attentiveness.

In reality, however, the legal situation for foods and beverages when it comes to marketing potential benefits for cognition, or anything else related to health, is a little more permissive than it is for supplements.

Frederick Stearns, a partner with Keller and Heckman (www.khlaw.com), a law firm that specializes in food and packaging regulations, says dietary supplements that make such claims are required to have a disclaimer on the label: “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure any disease.”

But no such requirement exists for foods and beverages, as long as they confine themselves to what the FDA calls “structure/function claims,” as opposed to “health claims.” The latter refers to a specific disease or health-related condition. So “helps maintain memory and focus” would be a permissible structure/function claim; “can reduce the risk of dementia” would be a health claim, which would require validation by the FDA.

Smart ingredients

Nonetheless, cognitively oriented ingredients are increasingly coming on the market. They include ginkgo; ginseng; curcumin, a chemical found in turmeric; resveratrol, found in red wine and other grape-based beverages; ashwagandha, or Indian ginseng; and lutein, a carotenoid vitamin related to vitamin A.

In many cases, cognitive health is a “new” benefit for ingredients that had previously been associated with other, or more general, health benefits. Curcumin is in the family of antioxidants, which are touted as helpful to the heart, joints and immune system; their usefulness for cognitive health isn’t usually marketed as prominently. Similarly, lutein has mostly been put forth for its benefits to vision: WebMD calls it “the eye vitamin.”

There are other, more familiar ingredients that have been associated over the years with cognitive health, like vitamins (especially A, E and the B vitamins), potassium and magnesium. Perhaps the most ubiquitous one is omega-3 fatty acids, especially docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. It’s one of the most prevalent acids in the brain. Studies have shown a correlation between heavy consumption of fish, a rich source of DHA, and resistance to Alzheimer’s.

Ingredient supplier DSM (www.dsm.com) markets Life’sDHA, a compound used in milk and other dairy products, baby foods, beverages, energy bars and other foods and beverages. Customers include Horizon Organic milk (from the WhiteWave division of Groupe Danone), Fairlife Milk (partly owned by Coca-Cola), pea milk from Ripple Foods and baby foods from Happy Family Brands.

Life’sDHA is partially made from algae, which not only helps with supply but confers some processing advantages, says Hugh Welsh, president of DSM North America: “We have developed a proprietary process in both algal fermentation as well as in fish oil omega-3 that address many of the challenges others confront with degradation of product after exposure to oxygen.”

Many whole foods are credited with helping brain health. The zinc, riboflavin, omega-3 fatty acids and L-carnitine in almonds have been shown to increase brain activity, resulting in new neural pathways and a decreased occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease, says the Almond Board of California. Just in July, the California Walnut Commission revealed a study that showed the beneficial effects of walnuts on memory and learning skills, especially in relation to Alzheimer’s disease.

Similarly, the high levels of antioxidants and other phytochemicals in blueberries have been shown to slow the aging process, including memory loss. And the choline in eggs is a precursor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is involved in many functions including memory and brain development in infants and fetuses.

Drinks, bars and babies

Because cognitive health is a very specific claim, the products that use it for market appeal tend to be in “healthy” categories like energy drinks and bars.

iQ Juice (iqjuice.com) was co-founded by Dan Ehrlich, who became interested in the cognitive health benefits of foods and beverages when his mother contracted Alzheimer’s. With the help of his father, a medical researcher, he looked into different foods and ingredients for their cognitive benefits; one that caught his attention was polyphenols, which purportedly aid blood flow to the brain.

Polyphenols are present in apple cider, which serves as the base for all of iQ Juice’s products. The beverages address a range of health benefits, each centered on a different ingredient: Detox with pomegranate, Cleanse with green tea, Immunity with blueberry. The one most related to cognition is Memory with tart cherry.

Somewhat ironically, given the company’s name and history, Memory is one of the slowest sellers; the leader is Fat Burner. But the line is called iQ juice for a reason, Ehrlich says: “Whatever the health thing that we’re trying to address, it all basically starts with the brain.”

Processors often depend on consumers to make the connection themselves between certain ingredients and cognitive health benefits.

“Since the majority of our consumers are label readers, listing the ingredients in our blends is sufficient for the consumer to understand the intended effect of the blend,” says Aaron Hinde, president and co-founder of Lifeaid Beverage Co. (www.lifeaidbevco.com), which markets Focusaid and other health drinks. “For instance, listing Nootropics on a can of Focusaid resonates with consumers looking for cognitive support.” (“Nootropics” is a catchall term for a category of substances, both nutritional and pharmaceutical, that are touted as enhancing cognition; Focusaid has several, including gamma-amniobutyric acid or GABA, ginseng, yerba mate and more.)

IQbarCognition is the health edge that Will Nitze sought when he founded IQ Bar (www.eatiqbar.com), a line of energy bars. Nitze says that almost all such products focus on physical energy, which is misplaced for people with sedentary office jobs.

“Everyone’s working longer hours and looking for a mental edge, so interest in that has skyrocketed, but no one is really serving those folks from a ready-to-eat food standpoint,” Nitze says. IQ Bars, which come in three varieties, have five ingredients for cognitive health: fiber, medium-chain triglycerides, omega-3s, flavonoids and vitamin E.

Parents of infants and young children are an important potential market for foods with cognitive health benefits. Happy Family Brands (happyfamilybrands.com) markets infant formula, baby food, snacks, beverages and more with a range of benefits that includes cognition. One of its products, a blended food for toddlers, is called Super Smart and is fortified with DHA and choline, a derivative of lecithin.

“As parents ourselves, we know that [cognition] is something that is top of mind for parents,” says Regina Lee Fechter, Happy Family’s vice president for innovation and business development. “We thoughtfully craft each organic meal and snack to include curated ingredients that are appropriate for each baby and toddler’s age and stage. As it pertains to cognitive health in particular, we know that many babies don't consume enough iron and therefore have cereal options that are made with iron to help support brain development."

Cognitive health is an underdeveloped marketing edge for foods and beverages. Touting it could be a smart move.