From Switzerland to Japan to New Zealand, cutting-edge researchers, as well as companies such as Unilever, Nestlé, Yakult and Glico, have recognised that we've only just begun to understand the powerful links between nutrition, mood and mental health, according to Julian Mellentin — editor of New Nutrition Business magazine. In the new report, 'Ten Key Trends in Food, Nutrition and Health 2007,' he predicts that we are at the dawn of a new category.
In November 2006, Nestlé announced that it was investing around $4 million a year for the next five years for research into the relationship between nutrition and the brain. The research, to be conducted by Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) — one of the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology — will range from the role nutrition plays in children's brain development to identifying ways of slowing brain decline in old age and preventing diseases such as Alzheimer's. (Another sign of where Nestlé's interests lie is the Nestlé Research Center's recent staging of a nutrition symposium on the subject of food and the brain.)
Nestlé has made the biggest investment of its kind in the food-mood link, but the Swiss giant is a relative newcomer to mood-food research. On the opposite side of the globe, the New Zealand-based science company HortResearch has already established itself as a pioneer in the field. Home to the world's largest fruit gene and compound database, HortResearch is three years into a mood-food programme, conducting cutting-edge research into the effects that consuming certain fruits can have on mood and mental well-being. This research, when it comes to fruition, can only further underpin fruit's emerging role as a driver of future functional-foods activity.
Investment in scientific research is one sign of a possible emerging trend. However, the history of food and health over the last 15 years is littered with instances of health areas and ingredients that have been the subject of millions of misspent R&D dollars. Much scientific research has failed to produce market opportunities (the dairy industry's investment in lactoferrin and other bioactives is one example), and many investments have never been paid back.
What makes mood/brain health different is that it is already a market in which companies are active. And, these companies are either becoming successful in these areas, or are learning fast how to educate consumers about the 'new' brain/mood benefits they can gain from food.
In the West, this embryonic area is synonymous with omega-3 DHA, currently the largest brain-health ingredient and the only one that can claim any degree of consumer awareness. Products with DHA are almost entirely targeted at younger children and their mothers, building on a 'normal brain development' platform and DHA's well-publicised link to enhanced learning and concentration. Such products are still niche but are advancing fast.
It's not only in kids' products that DHA is making headway. Coca-Cola's Odwalla adult smoothie business chose to add DHA to its first product in the soy-milk market, using the 'healthy brain development' message as the point of difference for a product that is entering a crowded category. "We came up with a formulation that tastes great, and when the DHA opportunity presented itself, we thought it was a chance to distinguish ourselves in a big category," said Chris Brandt, California-based Odwalla's marketing director.
In the UK market alone, Mellentin estimates, based on supermarket scanning data, that at least $132 million worth of products sold in supermarkets containing added DHA are marketed with an overt brain-health/development platform. But he says that's nothing compared to Japan, where the market has widened beyond DHA to include many other ingredients whose mood/brain-health benefits are supported by a growing body of science. Sceptics will find that many of the most successful products in Western markets, from energy drinks to probiotic products, were established in Japan long before anyone in the West had heard of them.
Mellentin predicts the same scenario in the field of mood/brain food. You might not yet have heard of ingredients such as GABA (an amino acid that occurs naturally in some products), PS (phosphatidlyserine), or L-theanine, but soon you surely will, he says. Coca-Cola, Yakult and Unilever are just three companies using these ingredients and touting their mood/cognition benefits in the marketing of products. Currently these companies are creating a market worth at least $100 million in retail sales, which grew 20 per cent last year. 'Ten Key Trends in Food, Nutrition and Health 2007' can be purchased from www.new-nutrition.com for $195.