Companies are scrambling to take advantage of the surge in consumer interest in this category. According to a prediction from market research firm SPINS, nootropics will be a hot category in 2018 in the dietary supplement space along with CBDs and adaptogens.
But it’s a crowded category and one that is not entirely understood by consumers. Is ashwaganda a nootropic, or an adaptogen? What about rhodiola?
To cut throught that clutter it helps to have a focused suite of evidence for a botanical ingredient. That’s what PLT says it has backing its branded ingredient Zembrin, which is an extract of Sceletium tortuosum, a South African succlent species. The plant has a long history of use among the indigenous San people (formerly known as the Bushmen), who chewed bits of the plant to help them cope with the stress of life in their harsh desert environment.
The ingredient has a distinct mode of action, said Barbara Davis, PhD, head of medical and scientific affairs for PLT.
“It has a distinct mechanism for relieving stress which was verified using MRI data,” Davis told NutraIngredients-USA.
Davis said one peer-reviewed study showed that 25 mg of Zembrin reduced anxiety-related activity of the amygdala and its associated anxiety circuitry within two hours of use. The company claims to have four other trials associated with the ingredient. Davis said the study verified Zembrin’s mode of action as a dual 5-HT reuptake and PDE4 inhibitor. In this way, the ingredient can both boost mood and sharpen focus, she said.
Fair trade story
That’s a good start, but to succeed in the modern botanicals space it’s also helpful to have a good story behind the ingredient, according to Seth Flowerman, president of PLT. Flowerman said Zembrin is the subject of the first Export and Bioprospecting permit to be issued by the South African government. He said Zembrin is the impetus for Africa’s first prior-informed consent benefit-sharing agreement, signed with the South African San Council after 2 years of negotiation, to formally recognize the primary indigenous knowledge holders of Sceletium.
Desert-dwelling succulent species are noted for slow growth and for relatively sparse distribution. This potential supply bottleneck is one of the things that brought low another succelent ingredient from the region—hoodia. In the case of Sceletium tortuosum, PLT dealt with this by cultivating the plant under shade cloth to mimic its natural environment while at the same time verifying that the levels of bioactives remained similar.
Dealing with variability
Davis noted that research into the original plant revealed that there was wide variability. Some of the plants had high levels of the bioactives and were efficacious; others were of little use. Part of the indigenous knowledge was knowing which was which, Davis said. The San people could recognize these by sight.
To maintain the quality of the raw material, Davis said the farm in South Africa is located far away from the plant’s natural range. This ensures that there is no cross pollination with the ineffective examples of the plant.
Focus boosting opens sports positioning
Flowerman said the ingredient’s dual action has opened another potential category for its use. While dealing with the stress of modern life is the ingredient’s core positioning, it’s ability to boost cognitive performance under trying conditions has also attracted some athletes, he said.
“Originally it was used by herders who would have to go for long distances without food or water. That news has spread and it has now become a pretty well known ingredient on the sports nutrition side,” he said.