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

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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 (, 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 ( 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.”

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