We’ve been hearing a lot about mental health and its importance, but what exactly does it entail? Mental health refers to a state of wellbeing that covers emotional, psychological, and social aspects that affect how we think, act, and feel. It is what helps us handle stress, relate to others, and make decisions.
Mental health has become a very important topic over the last few years and is increasingly being talked about in an effort to destigmatize it and highlight its contribution to overall wellbeing and improved quality of life. But we’re not going to talk about mental health today. Instead, we’re going to look at a closely-related topic that is going to become very prominent in the coming years – cognitive health.
A healthy brain in a healthy body
Cognitive health is a part of keeping the brain healthy (brain health and cognitive health are often used synonymously) and is the brain’s ability to focus, learn, remember, process language, and control executive functioning. This is basically what helps us plan and execute tasks, and what helps us improvise and change tack when things don’t go according to plan.
References to cognitive health had been fairly steady in previous years as it related mostly to senior health and cognitive decline due to aging. As populations across the world grow older, the concept of healthy aging has been gaining ground. In 2020, cognitive health took a backseat to mental health due to the stresses linked to the pandemic.
However, there are indications that interest in cognitive health is bouncing back and is no longer limited to senior health. Consumers are planning ahead as they grow older, particularly in light of growing healthcare costs. In addition, the concept of improving cognitive health is also becoming important among new cohorts of consumers, particularly those looking for focus and faster decision-making capabilities, such as students, gamers, athletes, and even for office workers.
During January to September 2021, buzz around cognitive health in media channels grew by 22%, while that for mental health grew by 16%.
There are a number of factors that can put cognitive health at risk, from age to stress and environmental toxins. Research has indicated that cognitive health can be improved in a number of ways:
- Incorporating more plant-based foods in our diet
- Exercising regularly
- Getting enough sleep
- Managing stress
- Nurturing social contacts
- Challenging the brain
A study published in July 2021 by researchers at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing even found that good oral hygiene, like brushing and flossing, could prevent cognitive impairment and dementia.
Another study published in September 2021 indicated the importance of diet on cognitive health. The study found that the MIND diet, a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, was linked to slower cognitive decline and lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in older adults.
Ingredients emerge for cognitive health
From the food space, given consumers’ growing interest in plant-based foods as well as in functional ingredients, a number of ingredients have emerged specifically to help with improved cognition in recent years. These are still quite novel ingredients, with ongoing research, but show positive signs of offering cognitive health benefits.
Green oat extract
Green oat extracts and tinctures – made from the immature aerial parts of the oat plant – have been used in traditional remedies for centuries for their purported benefits on cognition and mood. Published studies in recent years of different formulations of green oat extract (Avena sativa) have backed this up with clinical trials, which have shown significant positive effects on cognitive functions. These include improved speed of performance, executive function, working and episodic memory, attention, and quantitative electroencephalography.
Despite this, at present, the bulk of use of green oat extract is in supplements. With growing interest in cognitive health, there may be scope to incorporate this into other categories, like beverages. The extract is water soluble and its functional benefits could potentially offer consumers looking for foods to help them focus an alternative to coffee or caffeine.
Researchers have suggested that prebiotic oligosaccharides may be a strong contender for ingredients for brain health or cognitive health. These non-digestible oligosaccharides can be an important source of “food” for probiotics in our gastrointestinal tract, which then release various beneficial metabolites that are transported to different parts of the body, including the brain.
Preliminary studies in animal models have pointed to positive effects of prebiotic supplementation on markers of depression and anxiety. They also showed positive effects on brain chemistry markers linked to memory and other cognitive functions as well as lowered oxidative stress in brain tissues.
This interest in prebiotics is likely driven by the growing awareness of the gut-brain axis, the bidirectional communication between intestinal functions and the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain. There is growing evidence to indicate that brain health may have a direct connection with gut health.
Our analysis of social media conversations shows that gut health is the third most talked-about health concern.
We also analyzed academic papers on various topics linked to gut health and looked at how much research was associated with prebiotics and oligosaccharides. Both are still evolving in terms of robust research, so there can be a lot expected from here in the coming years.
Prebiotics and oligosaccharides are not new food ingredients in the food space from a gut health perspective, but with the gut-brain axis becoming a growing field of study, linking these ingredients to cognitive health may not be too far off.
Other ingredients that may have cognitive and focus benefits include bramhi or bacopa extract (used in Ayurvedic medicine) and gingko biloba (used in traditional Chinese medicine).
There are also a number of proprietary ingredients from different companies looking to offer the cognitive health functionality.
A number of companies offer their own proprietary versions of green oat extract, with their own studies supporting the functional benefits, including Cognitaven from CK Nutraceuticals and Neuravena from Frutarom/IFF Health.
The Functional Chocolate Company has introduced a variant called Brainy Chocolate, which incorporates Chocamine, a patented cocoa-based ingredient that comprises standardized theobromine, amino acids, various minerals, biogenic amines, anandamides, and polyphenols that may support cognitive function.
An Italian company called Bionap, which produces biological extracts for nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals, has introduced a product called Cognigrape for cognitive wellness. It is derived from red grapes grown in Sicily, a focus area for the company. According to the company, a clinical trial of Cognigrape showed improved cognitive function related to attention, language, and immediate and delayed memory.
Cognitive health is going to emerge as an important space for food and drink manufacturers to leverage in light of all this action.
Ranjana works as the Lead Research Analyst for Spoonshot. Her past experience includes working with a major global market research company, specializing in food and drink trends. She has also worked with major publications as a writer and editor.