Insights from Positive Nutrition Summit

Functional foods for the mind: what are consumers looking for?

By Olivia Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Functional foods for the mind: what are consumers looking for?

Related tags Functional foods Marketing Claims Trends consumer insights

A cognitive health innovation panel hosted at the Positive Nutrition summit last week (March 30th), discussed key consumer demands in a crowded market, legislation challenges, and the future potential for the space.

Discussing the consumer problems solved by functional foods, Giancarlo Addario, principal at Five Seasons Ventures, spotlighted three key areas: preventing health-related conditions, performance declines of the brain and body with age, and improving post-workout recovery.

Eoin Keenan, founder and CEO of Goodrays, revealed the results from a consumer-focused piece of research the brand had conducted the previous week and found two key things consumers were looking for – healthy ageing and performance optimisation.

“The first was longevity, particularly in the over 30s category. They’re looking at a wide range of health products, not on a tangible basis… not asking ‘how is my gut feeling today’ and ‘how is my heart feeling today’, but ‘how is this going to be part of my diet now and impact my overall wellbeing for longevity.

The other point is performance, more in terms of ‘how can I improve my performance by 5-10%’. I think consumers are looking at optimisation rather than a full solution. If they were looking for a solution, they would be going to a doctor or pharmacy,” ​he continues.

With regards to the customer base for his CBD brand, he explained: “People are using it for anxiety, stress, and sleep. Those are the three main things we focus on. Other than that, there’s pain, arthritis, and other medical reasons, but we are a wellness brand.

In terms of the clinical studies going on behind the scenes, they are really positive with a 70-80% efficacy. When you talk to the wellness consumer, this is what they want… they want honesty and transparency and not a quick fix. And there isn’t a quick fix. It’s about enhancement, and you must manage consumer expectations​.”

Untapped potential

Keenan highlighted that “retailers are slightly behind in offering health and wellness to the consumer​”, following the company’s launch into top UK supermarkets, including Tesco and Waitrose, at the end of last year.

In one of the retailers we launched in, their soft drinks had been declining over the last eight years. And just this year from launching the health and wellness range, for the first time their soft drinks are seeing growth​,” he stressed.

He added that the global functional drinks market is expected to grow​ at compound average growth rate (CAGR) of 7.2% until 2027, whilst CBD’s growth is predicted to be even more rapid. He attributed this to a consumer demand for added benefits to products, stretching further than existing ‘low-fat’ or ‘low sugar’ health claims.

Professor David Nutt, Chief Research Officer at GABA Labs, discussed his company’s production of the first botanical spirit containing the neurotransmitter GABA; with studies suggesting its ability to deliver calming effects.

We’ve moved on to look at the broader utility of GABA. We already know the microbiome and the effects on the enteric nervous system, and there are loads of GABA receptors in the enteric nervous system. There’s very new data showing that many of the microbes in the gut use and produce GABA​,” he stresses, suggesting the potential for its use within probiotics to see benefits to cognition.

He also hinted at the potential for such products to alleviate the symptoms of menopause, highlighting the likely importance of the microbiome in the condition.

Gut-brain axis

Miguel Freitas, VP of Scientific Affairs at Danone, also discussed the importance of the gut in this cognitive space, adding: “The gut microbiome plays a key role in regulating both the brain and the gut. What’s even more exciting, it that biotics could influence the brain. There are a lot of on-going studies looking at strains like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus that have been shown, to a certain extent, to influence cognitive health​”.

He continued to discuss the bi-directional effect of the brain and the gut, stressing: “The door is open, and biotics could have a real impact on these discussed issues of anxiety, stress, and sleep. Different studies are being done using different clinical models.”

He described a trial ​conducted at Danone in which consumers were administered a probiotic over several weeks. They were then shown stressful images, with brain scans monitoring changes in terms of the participants’ perception of the stress. It was noted that the probiotic significantly affected brain activity in regions processing emotion and sensation.

“The field is evolving, and these clinical models are evolving. The potential is big,” ​he emphasised.

Key challenges

With regards to the challenges in this market, Addario explained it is difficult for brands to stand out from the crowd, and concentrate on scientific backing: “There are the established regulatory challenges in this field. But it is also an over-crowded space, and the challenge is how to stand out. The third problem is the trade-off between scientific and lifestyle. Whilst the scientific brand is less likely to be understood and less attractive, the lifestyle brand is not as trusted or transparent. So there needs to be a good balance of these two ingredients.”

Freitas emphasised the broadness of the cognitive health field, ranging from Alzheimer’s prevention to alleviating symptoms of stress and depression. But he noted that the claims allowed for such products will likely remain largely restricted by regulations.

I don’t see us having a probiotic that will treat, for example, anxiety, stress, and depression. I think it will be more claims like mental well-being or sleep support,​” he predicted for future new product development in the space for cognitive-focussed biotics.


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