The first functional consumables to enter mainstream American consumer consciousness were energy drinks and power bars, usually loaded with ingredients like caffeine and taurine for high-level, intense functioning.
Now, an increasing number of foods and beverages feature ingredients that help consumers go the other way.
Relaxation, calmness and stress relief are no longer the sole province of alcohol. Functional foods and beverages are now on the market with ingredients, both old and new, that purportedly help consumers to wind down, escape mental stress and, in some cases, get to sleep.
Brian Zapp, creative director with Applied Food Sciences Inc. (www.appliedfoods.com), sees a symmetry between the appeal of energy-enhancing products and the newer surge in products with relaxation appeal.
“Relaxation is seemingly the next wave in functional food and beverage innovation, as consumers look to reduce their stress levels and get to a point of restfulness at the end of the day,” Zapp says. “One of the influences on this growing market is consumer behavior. Consumers want to get more done, seeking one energy source after another in coffee, energy drinks and other stimulating solutions. However, what appears to be happening alongside the need for increased energy is almost a polar opposite: the need to relax, unwind, de-stress and achieve a restful night’s sleep.”
While most functional ingredients are marketed for more established benefits, such as digestive and cardiac health, stress relief is an emerging option, says Santiago Vega, director of marketing, nutrition and health for Naturex North America (www.naturex.com), a unit of Givaudan.
“Stress relief and relaxation is an emerging benefit that is very high in the areas of concern by consumers,” Vega says. “It is emerging in terms of solutions that consumers can find in the market.”
Naturex markets stress-relief ingredients including ashwagandha, an herb root sourced mostly from India, melatonin, chamomile, lemon balm and passion flower. These are now mostly used in hot teas and functional beverages, Vega says.
Calmness in a cup
Passion flower is an ingredient in Cup of Calm, an herbal tea from Traditional Medicinals (www.traditionalmedicinals.com). Herbal tea is a natural vehicle for relaxation-oriented ingredients, says brand manager John Churchman.
“Many consumers naturally associate hot herbal tea with relaxation; it is one of the most sought-after benefits within the category,” Churchman says. Besides passion flower, Cup of Calm features chamomile, lavender and catnip, all of which are classified as “nervines” – herbs that purportedly act on the nervous system to help relieve stress.
Kava is another ingredient primarily marketed as a stress reliever and sleep enhancer. Sometimes called kava kava, it’s the root of a shrub that grows in Hawaii and other South Pacific islands, where it has been consumed for centuries for its calming and soporific effects.
Applied Food Sciences Inc. sells it under the trade name Kavoa. Zapp says Kavoa is extracted in a way that enhances its content of kavain and dihydrokavain, which he says are “the two kavalactones that research suggest contribute the most significant effect on mood and sleep benefits.”
Kava is usually consumed as a beverage, but it’s turning up in foods also. Ozia Originals (www.oziaoriginals.com) markets Kava Kava candy, whose carton declares it “The Stress Candy – When nothing else relieves stress at work.” The candy is produced on the U.S. mainland, but the kava is sourced from Hawaii, says Steve George, “village chief” of Ozia Originals. It’s sold mostly online and in bars that specialize in kava drinks – a growing phenomenon in U.S. cities.
“Stress relief is the main appeal,” George says. “Our customers are simply those who are looking for natural remedies to destress.”
Cycling into sleep
Another substance often marketed to help with calmness, and especially sleep, is melatonin, a hormone produced by the brain’s pineal gland that regulates sleep cycles. Although scientific evidence of its effectiveness is not conclusive, it’s widely sold in capsule or tablet form in drugstores as a sleep aid. It’s also used in pet food, especially in dog treats that are marketed as having a calming effect on nervous or hyperactive dogs.
Its use as an ingredient is less widespread, but it’s present in a number of products that promote themselves as sleep aids -- like Som Sleep, a drink marketed by Som Friends Inc. (www.getsom.com). In addition to melatonin for sleep enhancement, Som Sleep has L-theanine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which are often marketed as relaxation-promoting ingredients.
Som is now marketed mostly online, through its own website and Amazon, but it is also taking hold in “a rapidly expanding brick-and-mortar footprint consisting primarily of grocery, specialty and natural outlets,” says Rob Bent, co-founder and chief product officer. “We're adding retailers every day and will be entering new retail channels nationwide throughout 2019.”
Bent says Som was developed through testing with “a select group of professional athletes and celebrities” as well as others. “We were able to garner feedback from those we knew would give us a straight answer on whether Som worked for them and whether they enjoyed it.” Eventually, the company settled on the formula of magnesium and vitamin B6 for nutrition, L-theanine and GABA for relaxation, and melatonin for sleep.
Food or supplement?
Som Sleep has a light, refreshing, citrusy taste, and Kava Candy is, well, candy. But like many other products with similar ingredients, they both are marketed as dietary supplements, not foods or beverages. This is because of the complicated regulatory situation with ingredients that promote relaxation, which mirrors the situation with functional ingredients in general.
Melatonin, for example, is not FDA-approved as a food ingredient; the agency has sent warning letters to food manufacturers using it. Melatonin can currently only be used in nutritional supplements, which operate in a looser regulatory framework. This is why Som is sold as a supplement, Bent says.
“Melatonin is only allowed in dietary supplements, not in food products, under the current regulatory environment,” he says. “Despite the additional rigors of producing and marketing a dietary supplement, we chose this route because we were determined to give consumers the most comprehensive, effective option possible. We simply weren't willing to compromise on quality in order to take the easier road to market.”
Using an ingredient not previously determined by the FDA as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) requires ad-hoc FDA permission. Usually, the ingredient supplier will assist with documentation to facilitate that process. Vega says this is easier with certain substances that have an established history of health benefits, such as ashwagandha, which has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for millennia.
“I think there are several cases in which these materials have been used for a long time, for centuries or more, and the FDA accepts them as safe based on history of use,” Vega says.
Stirring the pot
There’s another category of relaxation-related consumables where regulations are even trickier. Cannabinoids represent a frontier in food and beverage formulations where the rules, as well as market basics like distribution and consumer demographics, are very much in flux.
Cannabinoids fall into two categories. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana, is intoxicating when ingested or smoked. It is illegal under federal law, although that law is not currently being enforced in the 30 states that have legalized medical marijuana under state law, or the nine that have legalized its recreational use. In the latter, sales of THC-infused foods and beverages are common.
The second cannabinoid ingredient is cannabidiol (CBD), mostly derived from industrial hemp. CBD is not psychoactive, but it is said to promote relaxation and anxiety, and relieve some types of pain. Its legality had been ambiguous, but that ambiguity has mostly been removed with the passage of the Farm Bill, which President Trump signed in December. The bill legalizes industrial hemp and its byproducts nationwide.
Products containing CBD are more widely available than ones with THC. Rocky Mountain High Brands (www.rockymountainhighbrands.com) markets a line of CBD-infused beverages and gummy candies called Hempd. (Its products also include CBD capsules and tinctures.)
Michelle Krebsbach, director of marketing for Rocky Mountain High Brands, personally swears by the restorative powers of CBD. She recounted how, sitting at her desk suffering from a “throbbing migraine,” she took two dropperfuls of Hempd tincture.
“Forty-five minutes later, I could literally feel that it was in me, and my headache went away. It was gone,” Krebsbach says. “I just felt like an overall relaxed kind of calm. I would say the calming, relaxation and anxiety piece of it is probably the first thing you feel, and some of the other benefits are probably secondary.”
Like many products containing cannabinoids, Hempd is mostly distributed online and in specialty stores. Krebsbach says that with the passage of the Farm Bill, Rocky Mountain High Brands is in a position to move ahead with more retail distribution.
“We do have several of our supplements in [marijuana dispensaries] and little health markets and places like that, but that’s not really where we want to be,” she says. “We want to be more on a national, global scale with our brands, so right now we’re looking at big distributorship opportunities.”
Using ingredients that promote relaxation can be tricky, in terms of regulation and other aspects. But the right research and groundwork can go a long way toward…relieving anxiety.