Predictions of what the world will look like in the future often include flying cars and spaceships. What is rarely mentioned is that the people driving them are likely to be senior citizens who can't quite remember where they put their keys.By 2060, it is estimated that 30% of the EU population will be over 65 years old (currently the figure is 17%), accounting for 151M people. Aldous Huxley had it wrong - we are actually heading into a Brave Old World.
For functional food companies, these changing demographics are good news. Older people are more concerned about health, with heart disease and dementia top of the list. As one supplier put it: "The ageing consumer is well-educated, well-off and wants to live an active life. They will become the trendsetters for society."
What's strange is that while advances have been made in addressing heart health, products targeting mental wellbeing in adults, whether that is mood, memory or cognitive function, are thin on the ground.
Professor David Smith, co-founder of the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing, argues there is an underlying prejudice against older people that has stopped companies investing.
"The elderly have been neglected in nutrition studies, especially by the food industry. Companies don't want their products to be associated with the elderly," he says. "But change is in the air. People are realising that they are a large and growing part of the population and we can't ignore them." Smith is currently working on a study into whether folic acid, vitamins B12 and B6 reduce brain shrinkage in elderly people who have memory problems, with participants' brains measured by MRI scans.
Hypothesis or fact?
In the UK, around 350,000 elderly people develop memory impairment every year; half of those will develop dementia.
According to Smith, much more of this kind of research is needed to truly understand the link between food and the brain. "Most of the research is merely observational and just raises a hypothesis. We need more clinical trials where people are given functional foods in a blind way and are then followed for years. These trials are expensive and companies don't want to fund them, but that's what we need."
At the Institute of Food Research in Norwich,UK, Dr Siân Astley says there is not yet enough scientific evidence to prove the role of specific nutrients in good brain health, mainly because the brain remains something of a mystery.
"We don't understand a lot about what goes on between our ears. It's incredibly difficult to measure brain function - cognitive tests are subjective and can be criticised in the same way as intelligence tests. What's normal for me, is different to what's normal for you. Methods are coming through of looking at the brain through scans, but it's very new and expensive."
While B vitamins are one interesting area of research, Ewa Hudson, health and wellness manager at Euromonitor, says there are other ingredients making an impact.
She points to a huge rise in global sales of ginkgo biloba and ginseng, while in Japan, ingredients such as co-enzyme Q10 and GABA are popular ingredients for adult brain foods. When it comes to the West, Hudson says the ingredients most likely to succeed are omega-3 DHA and phospholipids, particularly phosphatidylserine (PS).
Leaving DHA to one side for the moment, there is now some fairly convincing research showing that PS is effective in fighting dementia and cognitive decline, she says. "Lecithin is an excellent source of phospholipids but has failed to enter mainstream consciousness as a brain food. A prime opportunity exists for food and supplement makers to promote this ingredient to the ageing demographic."
It's an idea that Finnish supplements company Hankintatukku Oy seems to have picked up on already, after recently launching a supplement containing soya-lecithin PS, from Israeli producer Lipogen, which targets stress and cognitive function.
Lipogen chief executive David Rutenberg says supplements remain the most likely route to market for PS, with a wave of functional foods unlikely in the short-term.
"In the US, we achieved GRAS status in 2006 and a qualified health claim was approved in 2006 ('PS may reduce the risk of cognitive dysfunction in the elderly'). These were huge breakthroughs, but explaining the science of PS is a complicated message for functional foods. It needs to be marketed in a way that is easily understood."
Arla Foods in Denmark has also launched a PS ingredient, derived from milk, called Lacprodan PL-20. A milk protein concentrate, it has been shown to reduce stress and improve memory. Gitte Graverholt, team leader for health and performance ingredients, says that soya-derived PS has struggled to make an impact in functional foods because of stability issues. "But PS from milk is stable, natural and has no 'off' taste. It can be used in dairy products, protein bars and beverages," she says. "The FDA-approved claim shows there is good research behind PS and we have also submitted a claim application to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)."
While PS might be an ingredient to watch in the future, it is omega-3 DHA that seems most likely to lead the way in adult brain health in the short-term. Well known for its heart health benefits, DHA has been increasingly used in products aimed at children's mental health - promoting concentration and brain development - but manufacturers have been slow to launch similar products for adults. Back at Euromonitor, Ewa Hudson describes this as a "gaping hole in the market"
"There is now a growing evidence base that DHA might delay or even prevent the onset of Alzheimer's," she says. "But brain-healthy functional foods targeted at the older demographic are virtually non-existent. This is where we expect a major shift over the next five years."
That shift could be already happening in the US where several adult brain health products, containing algae-derived DHA from Martek Biosciences, have recently hit the market. Examples include Kellogg's Live Bright Brain Health Bars and DHA-enriched cooking oil from Smuckers.
"It's early days, but with a huge population of ageing baby boomers more products will follow," says Martek spokeswoman Cassie France-Kelly.
Momentum is also building as research into the relationship between DHA and the brain grows. Well-accepted structural and epidemiological evidence connecting DHA with good brain health is now being strengthened with clinical studies. Martek is soon to complete a study looking at whether DHA improves cognitive function in adults aged over 55 who are healthy but have complained of poor memory. "There's no reason to suggest that the results won't be positive," says France-Kelly.
There are currently no approved health claims for DHA and the brain in the US, although there are several relating to structure and function, while in Europe several claims are being considered by EFSA At fish oil omega-3 supplier Nu-Mega, Jerry Luff, business development and regional director for Europe, says he is "reasonably confident" that a brain function claim will be approved. "Looking at the guidelines released by EFSA, in terms of the science and numbers of resources we've been able to supply, they are strongly supported claims."
This wait for EFSA's decision is holding back the market for brain health foods in Europe. "There's a hesitation because of the ambiguity on health claims," he says. "People are moving ahead, but it's putting a slight break on development."
It's a point echoed by Paul Kollesoff, business development manager for Irish ingredients company Glanbia, which last year acquired Pizzey's Nutritionals - a Canadian flax ingredient supplier. "I think a lot of food companies in Europe are waiting for what EFSA says; they are looking for clarification."
Kelley Fitzpatrick - a nutritionist and technical adviser to Pizzey's - says the company's new MeadowPure UltraGrad ingredient, which combines flax seeds with EPA and DHA from fish oil, is particularly well suited to older adults looking to maintain brain function.
"The flax provides a high degree of fibre, lignans and antioxidants, which fit well with an older demographic. We know that elderly people need higher levels of fibre," she says. Kollesoff adds that the antioxidant properties of the flax also help stabilise the fish oil, making the ingredient suitable for baked goods. "Cakes, biscuits and bread are the kinds of foods that older people are eating, but are technically difficult to enrich with fish oil because of the threat of oxidation."
Other products for older consumers tipped to see the inclusion of brain-boosting ingredients include beverages, yoghurts and cereals.
Whatever the format, there is agreement that this is an area of functional foods that will take centre-stage at some point. This is not just because we have an ageing population, but also because losing memory and cognitive function is such a frightening prospect. After all, our memories and ability to think are what make us who we are, and that's not going to change even if we drive flying cars.