Cognitive health is a concern for people of all ages. Factors like energy, concentration, and memory are crucial for functioning on both a professional and social level, and only get harder as we age. Add in concerns about maintaining brain health in the face of age-related cognitive decline, and it’s no surprise that the cognitive health dietary supplements category is a major area of opportunity for ingredient suppliers and finished-product manufacturers.
According to data from market researcher SPINS (Chicago) on the 52 weeks ending November 29, 2020, brain health was among the top 10 bestselling ingredient categories in the mainstream U.S. dietary supplement market. SPINS data indicate 68.6% growth in mainstream brain health ingredient sales for that period compared to the previous year. This area will only continue to grow as scientific research and food technology advances create innovative new products in multiple dosage formats.
Memory support has historically been a focus of the cognitive health space, with predominantly older consumers turning to dietary supplements as a way to manage common symptoms of age-related cognitive decline. While many adults do not think about cognitive decline until they begin to experience it, early intervention may be beneficial. According to Alan Snow, PhD, founder and CEO of supplements company Cognitive Clarity Inc. (Edmonds, WA), the reason memory declines as we age is because of the development of plaques and tangles in the brain.
“The plaques look like Swedish meatballs in the brain,” explains Snow. “They consist of a protein called beta-amyloid protein, and they start approximately in your 20s in about 95% of the population, but nobody knows why it’s caused; it’s not genetic.”
He goes on: “Plaques are outside neurons, so they’re in between neurons in the brain. Tangles consist of a protein called tau protein, which is normally a microtubule-associated protein. Something goes awry where the tau protein becomes tangled, kind of looks like dried-up spaghetti in the neuron, and then the neuron actually dies.”
Both plaques and tangles are neurotoxic to the brain, and their development in and between neurons essentially blocks communication to different parts of the brain, impacting memory. Plaques and tangles are responsible for 90% of memory loss that people experience, with inflammation eventually contributing to memory loss even further. Percepta, a dietary supplement developed by Cognitive Clarity and composed of a proprietary cat’s claw and oolong tea extract, has been clinically demonstrated to inhibit both plaques and tangles.1
According to the research published in Scientific Reports in 2019, the proprietary cat’s claw, with its 11-13 major polyphenolic components, not only prevented the formation of plaques and tangles but also reduced existing plaques and tangles. The study identified one particular proanthocyanidin that potently reduced plaque load in “plaque-producing” transgenic mice, which correlated with improvements in short-term memory.
While Snow’s research focuses on cat’s claw, it also sheds some light on the benefits that polyphenol and proanthocyanidin-rich ingredients have on brain health. In fact, Cognitive Clarity also makes a practitioner line of Percepta that contains black currant extract.
“The black currant extract we use contains 25% proanthocyanidins,” Snow explains. “What we found in our work on cat’s claw is that proanthocyanidins, which are epicatechin-dimers, seem to be very important for reducing plaques and tangles, so we did a lot of research and testing, and we identified black currant.”
Of course, as with all ingredients, sourcing and scientific validation are crucial. Snow points out that not all ingredients are created equal. Polyphenol-rich ingredients have been growing in popularity, and as more manufacturers develop products for the brain health market with these ingredients, the best way to differentiate is to offer ingredients backed with clinical research.
Snow’s research also evaluated mice of different ages. “We looked at both younger animals, in which 3% of their cortex were plaques. Then we looked at older animals, in which 10% of their cortex was filled with plaque, and [who] had severe memory loss,” explains Snow. “We were able to reduce plaques in both sets. In younger animals, there was a 70% reduction, and in older animals, there was a 58% reduction.”
Therefore, while older consumers may derive a benefit from supplementation, it may be advantageous to begin supplementation at a younger age. Younger consumers are already beginning to understand how supplements can support their cognitive health in tangible ways.
Outside of memory, cognitive-performance factors such as energy and focus are becoming increasingly important to health-conscious consumers. These consumers are now seeking ingredients that can help them increase energy and focus and reduce their intake of sugar and caffeine, which have traditionally been used to increase energy and focus. Innovative supplements—and in particular functional food and beverages that support not only energy, but focus, without negative side effects such as crash or jitters—can be a big win for manufacturers.
The shift toward energy with a performance paradigm has opened up important niche markets for products, such as in esports. Brands like XP Sports develop products that meet the unique needs of esports athletes such as the need for focus, energy, and alertness. Of course, these needs are attractive to a wide range of consumers.
“We designed our products with top-of-class ingredients to achieve optimal results and a unique sensory experience,” says Raza Bashir, vice president of scientific affairs, innovation, and procurement for Iovate Health Sciences Inc., XP Sports’ parent company. “We’ve included ingredients such as L-theanine, phosphatidylserine, and lutein, researched to support relaxation, mental clarity, and eye health, respectively, and which were not available together anywhere else in the market.”
Bashir continues: “We wanted to cater to all adults, not only gamers, which is why we created a wide-ranging assortment of products, from a carbonated liquid dietary supplement and a ready-to-mix powder to a capsule and delicious gummy, to help gamers stay locked in.”
The vast majority of consumers find themselves behind a screen for work, school, and recreation and therefore need real-world solutions to optimize their health and functioning. Brands like XP Sports offer these solutions, even if they are actively targeting a niche segment. These niche segments will eventually bleed into mainstream markets the same way sports nutrition products and ingredients such as protein did.
The same is true the other way around. Athletes, particularly professional athletes, recognize the importance of supporting their cognitive health. This is especially true in contact sports where repetitive head trauma can have tragic long-term consequences. In fact, says Snow, a blow to the head causes the formation of tangles almost instantly. This is why Percepta offers an NSF Certified for Sport product verified by NSF International (Ann Arbor, MI).
“Athletes, including the Tampa Bay Buckaneers, the Miami Dolphins, and the New England Patriots, have all been taking Percepta Sport for the last few years,” says Snow. “The Patriots started using it as soon as we certified it for sport. The certification means that they look for 272 banned substances in our dietary supplement, which is third-party tested, and then NSF International certifies that professional athletes can take it.”
Because full-contact sports can be played from a rather young age, it is not hard to imagine parents and coaches seeing the utility of incorporating products like Percepta in their children’s routine. Brain health products can therefore play an important role in supporting long-term cognitive health and development.
Mood is another important aspect of cognitive health that is gaining traction in the supplements space. For example, mood support was among the top four bestselling product categories in the U.S. natural dietary supplement channel during the 52 weeks ending November 29, 2020, according to SPINS. Mood-support products often focus on stress management. Stress management is something we can all benefit from, therefore presenting immense opportunity for dietary supplement and functional food manufacturers. One recent addition to the space is Mindright, a brand founded by entrepreneur and TV personality Rob Dyrdek and entrepreneur Chris Bernard.
“We believe that a positive mindset leads to increased productivity, energy, and focus, which ultimately influences our health and success in our work and personal lives,” says Bernard, cofounder and “chief mood officer” at Mindright. “If you’re happier, you’re healthier, and if you’re healthier, you can realize your full potential. There’s no simpler path to health and success than happiness and reducing negativity as much as possible.”
Mindright currently sells bars formulated with ginseng, ashwagandha, cordyceps, and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) in three flavors: Peanut Butter Cup, Toasted Coconut, and Blueberry Almond. Bars are certainly not a new delivery format, but when it comes to delivering active mood-support ingredients, they are unusual. As such, incorporating mood-support ingredients into a palatable bar was not without its challenges.
“We worked on many variations of the blend,” says Bernard. “All had positives and negatives around the physiological effect and, ultimately, the taste of the finished product. It was important to us that the finished product was both functional and felt consumer-friendly and approachable.”
He says: “Partnering with KSM-66’s ashwagandha supplier gave us great confidence in the output, safety, and efficacy around the ingredient based on their vast studies and clinical trials. This ingredient really became our star, doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the matrix. With this ingredient in place, we wanted to complement it with others that helped to pick up where ashwagandha left off: to address the lift in energy at the cellular level, and enhance mood. We really liked the cordyceps and ginseng for this purpose.”
Ashwagandha has seen immense growth in recent years as well-known consumer packaged goods brands began to incorporate the ingredient into their products and more consumers discovered its many benefits. For example, according to SPINS, in the 52 weeks ending November 29, 2020, ashwagandha ingredient sales grew nearly 4000% in the U.S. mainstream sleep supplements category. In the brain health supplements category, ginseng grew 23%. Cordyceps are less well known in the U.S. mainstream market but in the natural channel grew 43.7% in the immune health category. The inclusion of ashwagandha and cordyceps in Mindright signals that the ingredients are growing one step closer to wider consumer acceptance.
Of course, the right vehicle is needed to bring these ingredients to consumers. Food and drinks are increasingly a favored choice. For instance, bars are not only accessible but offer convenience on top of functionality, product traits more consumers have come to expect. The mood angle, with ingredients like ashwagandha, offers a point of differentiation in the bar market.
“We began our journey focused on brain health, antiaging, and enhancing cognitive brain function, and what indexed greater than all of these [attributes] was consumers’ desire to feel happy and be focused. It was this point that led us to lead with mood,” explains Bernard. “Mindright bars are for everyone, but specifically we want to speak to a new audience: the ‘Happy Hustler,’ or the consumer that has the same understanding that a better mood leads to increased productivity, energy, and focus in their day-to-day lives.”
The functional food cognitive health space has not stopped at bars, and nor will Mindright, which has salty snacks such as popped chips and functional beverages in the pipeline. The cognitive health space is becoming a diverse product category, with brands offering solutions to multiple subsets of consumers. However, it will also become increasingly competitive. Finding points of differentiation in combination with efficacious ingredients will be an important way to establish a foothold in the space.
- Snow AD et al. “The Amazon rain forest plant Uncaria tomentosa (cat’s claw) and its specific proanthocyanidin constituents are potent inhibitors and reducers of both brain plaques and tangles.” Scientific Reports, vol. 9 (2019): 561