Along with heart health, weight management and gut health, it is brain health that stands out as a category where functional ingredient activity is the most fierce.
No wonder in a western world where maladies of the mind proliferate, from sleep and mood disorders, to ageing afflictions such as Alzheimer’s disease, to memory and alertness loss.
While many of these conditions have traditionally been thought to be the preserve of the pharma industry, increasingly it is foods and supplements that are being handed a more central role in the prevention and control of ailments of the brain.
While the science is not always conclusive, it continues to grow and throw up backing for old and new relations between brain health and dietary input.
Omega-3s, green tea, phosphatidylserine (PS), St John’s wort, soy lecithin, guarana, ginseng, B vitamins, tryptophan and superfruits such as pomegranate are just some examples of ingredients out there claiming to assist the brain’s optimal function.
Omega-3 is one of the hottest ingredients in the sector with the likes of Martek’s algae-sourced DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) gaining near unanimous acceptance and use in infant formulas for its supposed brain and eye development benefits – at least in the US.
But it’s not just infant formula for DHA. In the case of Martek, its ingredients can be found in more than 200 products worldwide, often blended with ALA (alpha linolenic acid).
Marine sourced omega-3 has boomed in the past decade, mainly on the back of more solidly proven heart health benefits, but DHA’s success in infant formula and the rise of dietary supplements and foods suggesting brain health benefits, has driven interest in the fatty acid’s brain potential.
While approved health claims linking DHA or its sister compound, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), to brain health, are near to non-existent, they are being considered in various regions, and if approved, omega-3 suppliers such as Ocean Nutrition Canada, EPAX, Lonza, Croda and Nu-Mega will be at the ready to meet expected increases in demand.
Formulation improvements are making this easier to achieve
Some question the sustainability of the omega-3 fish supply, met by an equal number defending that sustainability, but either way, separate EPA research projects being conducted by DuPont and Monsanto, as well as BASF, could bring an interesting alternative to market.
Green tea is the botanical that has gained a lot of attention in recent years as studies have come in backing the antioxidant’s ability to boost alertness.
Like many herbs, it is multi-functional and has also been strongly linked with heart health and weight management, but many studies have demonstrated its ability to improve alertness and relieve fatigue.
Most of the major botanicals suppliers offer green tea extracts including Naturex, Indena, Sabinsa, BioSerae, Frutarom and Fenchem.
With green tea grown in such abundance there are few supply issues regarding the various grades and concentrations of green tea extracts.
Other herbals such as St John’s wort, ginkgo biloba and ginseng have become perennials in the sector, even if the science is not always as robust as some regulators may wish it to be.
CoQ10 is another ingredient that is growing in reputation in the brain health area as studies demonstrate its ability to assist the likes of Parkinson’s disease. The market is still niche compared to its use in heart health dietary supplements.
Supply has traditionally been dominated by Japanese suppliers such as Kaneka and Mistubishi, but the channel has broadened as Chinese suppliers have come onboard.
But brain health remains an emerging area and very much reliant on the strength of the science emerging around it.
The NutraIngredients cognitive health series examines the market, supply, science and regulation behind the category. For more articles in the series, click here.