Brain and cognitive health: bright young things

By Michelle Knott

- Last updated on GMT

Food for thought: younger people are increasingly looking to boost their brain power
Food for thought: younger people are increasingly looking to boost their brain power

Related tags: Nutrition

Long associated with older generations, cognitive health products have a new younger fanbase.

Key points

There is a growing market for cognitive health products globally and, according to market analysts, demand is expected to continue to rise as the population ages.

But the relevance of cognitive health-related products is not restricted to seniors.

“Stress reduction, improved alertness and enhanced cognitive performance are often particular areas of interest for younger adults and millennials,”​ suggests Dr Manfred Eggersdorfer, senior vice president for nutrition science and advocacy at DSM, and professor of healthy ageing at the University Medical Center in Groningen, the Netherlands.

The ageing population is often cited as being behind the boom in products that protect brain health and boost performance. But food manufacturers could be missing a trick if they think this market is all about the over-50s staving off decline and dementia.

Clearly, younger people are looking to boost their brain power too.

Functional food appeals to the young (return to top)

While older consumers are more likely to stick with supplements, younger consumers are more attracted by functional food and drink, Eggersdorfer believes.

“Younger consumers tend to opt for more appealing formats that can be consumed on-the-go, such as fortified beverages, power bars, gums or yogurts,”​ he says.

Consumers of all ages want to stay mentally sharp and focused as they balance their work, family, home and other responsibilities, says Miguel Martinho, marketing manager for Europe at Kemin Human Nutrition & Health. “We see active adults and business professionals interested in brain health supplements. Really, anyone who wants to improve mental performance as they juggle work and family,”​ he says.

Younger consumers, therefore, present an opportunity that ingredients makers are increasingly looking to target.

For example, Frutarom says it is aiming its Neuravena green oat-based ingredient at “working professionals in stressful jobs, to help them to stay calm, focused and clever”.

“Products that help to increase learning ability by supporting concentration and cognitive performance may also arouse the attention of students and young professionals who want to make sure their minds are sharp,”​ says Yannick Capelle, product manager for Frutarom Health.

How every age group can benefit (return to top)

That’s not to say that older people can’t benefit too. “Eventually, every age group can benefit from better cognitive performance: young adults and teenagers, working professionals but also the ‘golden agers’ who want to stay active, vital and focused.

“Therefore, products that help ensure a sharp mind will advance the brain-health category over the next years,” ​Capelle says.

Neuravena from Frutarom is soluble with a neutral taste and is expected to do well in beverages and food applications. “Monographs report mental and cognitive support, including mild anti-depressant effects, reduced anxiety and an increased ability to deal with stress,”​ says Capelle.

“Neuravena was the first oat extract to substantiate this benefit with clinical studies. Flavonoids are part of the active constituents of Neuravena but being a multicomponent system, many other molecules, mostly still unknown, contribute also in delivering the benefit,”​ he adds.

Neuravena does not currently have an approved EU health claim, but Frutarom says it will submit a dossier “when it is the right time”​.

Age-related memory issues (return to top)

Kemin’s Neumentix proprietary phenolic complex, meanwhile, is derived from spearmint and has been shown in clinical studies to safely support working memory and improve cognitive performance in adults with age-related memory issues. Some of its benefits could be felt by people in their 20s, according to Martinho.

A 90-day randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found people who took 900mg of Neumentix showed a 15% improvement in overall quality of working memory, and a 9% improvement in accuracy in spatial working memory compared with subjects who took a placebo.

“This is critical, as research shows that working memory can decline by 5–10% every decade, beginning as early as our 20s,”​ says Martinho.

Neumentix was launched in the US in 2014 and arrived in Europe in May last year. It’s currently formulated for use in supplements, but the company says it is also being formulated for functional food and beverages, with an expectation of receiving ‘generally recognised as safe’ status from the US Food and Drug Administration in the coming months.

“Due to the distinct line of plants, the tan powder has a hint of a herbal smell and flavour,”​ says Martinho. “It is water soluble, heat resistant and stable across a wide pH range.”

Again, Kemin’s potential customers must wait for an approved health claim in the EU, with evidence-gathering still a work in progress. “At this point, we are very much focused on growing the body of evidence to support Neumentix,”​ says Martinho.

Omega-3 fatty acids (return to top)

New ingredients may be coming through the pipeline, but the most popular ingredients for cognitive health remain the omega-3 fatty acids. There’s also growing interest in the potential of ‘old-school’ B vitamin fortification, especially as vitamins already enjoy approved health claims.

DSM offers omega-3s derived from fish oil or algae, as well as a range of other brain health-related vitamins, including B, D and E vitamins and carotenoids. Eggersdorfer says most of the benefits of these ingredients can be enjoyed at all ages.

“There have been several mechanisms identified by which micronutrients affect cognitive function, and all are important to maintaining a healthy brain throughout life,”​ he explains.

“For example, long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid [DHA], are important building blocks for neuronal cell membranes and are instrumental in brain development, neurotransmission, modulation of ion channels and neuroprotection.”

Brain DHA levels decrease with age, especially among Alzheimer’s disease patients, indicating that a reduced DHA content may contribute to deterioration in memory and other cognitive functions.

“On the other hand, energy production in the brain is heavily dependent on several vitamins and minerals, such as the B vitamins and vitamin C,”​ Eggersdorfer adds.

B vitamins (return to top)

While most advice about vitamins focuses on the long-term benefits, some of the latest research indicates that a hit of B vitamins can produce an almost immediate improvement.

At Vitafoods in May, Professor David Kennedy – director of the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre and professor of biological psychology at Northumbria University – published recent work with Bayer’s branded supplements, Berocca and Supradyn.

“Most nutritionists would say you’ve got to take [vitamins] over a period of time but that’s not based on any evidence,”​ says Kennedy.

“In one of our studies in children we saw improved function on attention tasks within hours.”

Kennedy’s recent study with Supradyn showed a dose-related response in terms of energy release while performing cognitive tasks. This backs up previous studies that suggest B vitamins could be a winner in brain-boosting products.

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