There's nothing new about mind-altering foods; hippies and Hippocrates all dabbled in the odd mood-enhancing mushroom. But the idea that manufacturers could build a whole new category based on ingredients that make you happier, calmer, sexier, livelier and even more intelligent, is pretty far out ... isn't it?
Far out maybe, but not that far off, according to functional foods pioneer, Helen Conn. "It's got to be a part of the palette in 30 years' time," she says. "The science is there; the products could be there; it's whether a company feels there's a market there."
So far, evidence suggesting consumers have any desire to chill-out among chilled foods or pick'n'mix their pick-me-ups among the packet soups is a bit thin, but then look how long it took probiotics - now a £275M category in the UK - to get a hold. "I remember talking about it on Tomorrow's World 15 years ago," points out Conn.
The science behind so-called psychotropic ingredients - those that affect mood and mental health - is growing, and with it an increasing awareness among health practitioners that good nutrition is as much about nourishing the mind as it is about feeding the body.
While a succession of reports over the past two years - notably the Mental Health Foundation's Feeding Minds: The impact of food on mental health - has stressed shunning fast foods in favour of a fresh, wholesome diet, more pragmatic campaigners recognise the role manufacturers could play in restoring our faculties by lacing convenience with cognitive remedies. Policy makers are similarly keen on any initiative that could cut the UK's £11bn mental health bill that threatens to become as much of a headache for future governments as today's obesity crisis.
Nutritional therapist Amanda Geary, founder of the Food and Mood Project, set up with the support of the mental health charity Mind, four years ago, is more forgiving than most of the part modern food production has played in the deteriorating health of the nation and sees potential for manufacturers to redeem themselves.
"Food producers have a part to play in addressing the serious issue of rising mental health problems," she says. "There are already nutrient enhanced products available on the market and the advantage of these is that customers don't have to change their eating behaviour in order to benefit." Her one concern is that functional foods "too often draw attention away from inferior ingredients by emphasising added nutrients. So what the consumer gains nutritionally in one area they lose in another"
What's depressing manufacturers is the regulatory minefield they are likely to encounter if they proceed down Geary's path of righteousness. As Adrian Hughes, European Technical Director for fatty acids ingredients supplier, Bioriginals, points out, if you thought proving a physical health claim was tough, you ain't seen nothing yet.
The problem with "mood food" is that it is, by definition, subjective.
"It's a dosage issue. You are not talking about a pharmaceutical product, but a food product and there are very strict levels. We are a long way from sorting that one out. You can do trials on supplements, but the uptake in the body is very different when you put it in food. [Such products] will certainly not be cheap because studies that are necessary now from a regulatory point of view are just huge."
Even under current rules, both Dairy Crest's ads for St Ivel Advance 'clever milk' with omega-3 and the Village Bakery's seemingly innocuous campaign for selenium enriched "happy bread" fell foul of the UK Advertising Standards Authority for pedaling claims not sufficiently supported by science.
Anyone reaching into the mood food medicine chest is likely to come up with two principle groups of active ingredients: essential fatty acids (EFAs) and essential amino acids, which facilitate communication across the personal logic board we call our brain. It is the accurate transmission of chemical messages between billions of brain cells, called neurons, that allows us to deal with the day-to-day stresses of modern life without blowing a fuse, but when communication fails, or is incomplete, we experience, among other things, mood swings and sleep disruption. In much the same way as a computer quits programmes without warning or refuses to shut down, the way we 'feel' is a diagnostic tool for the human processor and, in theory, diet is what keeps the chips from being down.
Almost three quarters of the brain is made of fat, but it's unique among the body's organs in being mostly composed of highly unsaturated fats, which is the clue to how omega-3 appears to influence concentration and behaviour, explored most recently in the well-publicised Oxford-Durham trial among school kids.
Neurotransmitters, the chemical postmen that deliver messages between cells - of which the best understood is the sleep-inducing serotonin - are made mainly from essential amino acids, such as leucine, phenylalanine, lysine and tryptophan, which is found in everyday foods, such as eggs, meat and beans.
So far, so good, but there's still a lot we don't know, especially when it comes to the complex interactions between these key chemicals and other dietary components, such as carbohydrate.
"I think in the next five years, there's going to be an enormous amount of science published in this area," predicts Bioriginals' Hughes. "Different countries are at different stages. Japan in particular has had for a number of years products targeting eye health, brain health and mood. The US is further behind, but Europe and Asia are more open to taking these products, so long as they are based around science and not hype."
That said, according to market watcher Mintel, there have been more product launches in the US than the UK over the past 10 years. Key ingredients in these 400-plus supplements and food products targeted at mental health, were omega-3 (concentration), gingko biloba and ginseng (memory), soy lecithin and St John's Wort (depression), and CoQ10 (Parkinson's disease).
Helen Conn believes the emergence of foods to feed the mind will be part of western cultures adopting a more holistic approach to preventative medicine or, as she puts it, shutting the stable door before the horse has bolted, and government could give it a hefty shove.
"The main thing government needs to do is meet with manufacturers, health professionals and consumer groups without any vested interest. If you look at Finland and Japan, that's what's happening. The problem we have in the UK is that it doesn't happen and you have to ask yourself what are the vested interests preventing it?"
A job for government
Amanda Geary goes further: "Government cannot afford to wait any longer and there is already sufficient scientific evidence to begin a campaign of healthy eating and healthy food products for mental health benefits," she says. "It could be a win-win situation - for the government, as the burden on the NHS and benefits system is reduced, and for food manufacturers, as new markets and products are developed. The likely losers would be the pharmaceutical industry, which is a powerful force with a lot of influence."
Andrew Whitley, founder of the organic Village Bakery and author of a newly published polemic against the modern loaf, Bread Matters, believes there's even a case for subsidy. He points to Britons' obsession with white bread and how, during the immediate post war years, the subsidised bran or 'national' loaf continued to outsell its pale counterpart. "Price would be associated with health, rather than being its enemy," he says.
All in the mind?
Whitley, who lauched his own 'happy bread' enriched with mood enhancing selenium some years ago, urges bakers to break ranks. "We need to stand back and see how we could make the most nutritious bread for people, given that it's such an important part of the diet and not pander to tastes that are self destructive," he says.
"My hypothesis is that the longer we ferment our bread, the more likely it is that we render it digestible and enliven people and raise their mental and spiritual function. There are marketing possibilities around that agenda. It would be fantastic to see somebody like Warburtons embrace it."
And it could be more profitable than they think to pull the emotional trigger. In a recent Food and Mood Project survey, 80% of people said dietary changes had helped to alleviate depressive illness and 93% had incorporated specific nutrients, the most common being EFAs.
"The mind is becoming more topical," says Joy Thomas of ingredients distributor Cornelius, which specialises in amino acids and helps companies develop products for new markets. "In the past, things that happened in your head you blamed on other things apart from food.
"I see it as a line where at one end you have feelings of being positive, happy and well. At the other end you have depression, chronic fatigue and anxiety. Most people are somewhere on that line towards the middle and most of the time we're OK. It's getting from OK to great where you need a bit of help."