Functional food ingredients give a cognitive boost to today’s stressed-out consumer


It’s no secret that people are stressed: The American Psychological Association’s 2020 Stress in America™ survey found that all age groups are experiencing unprecedented levels of elevated stress.

The good news is that consumers are increasingly trying to prevent the negative impacts of stress rather than just treat them after the fact. A key aspect of that is taking to heart the phrase “we are what we eat,” including searching out food and beverage products with functional ingredients that help in the pursuit of a healthy, active lifestyle.

Leah Johnston, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, says stress management has never been more important. “At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone wanted to boost their immunity, but now the focus has shifted to managing stress.”

How stress affects the brain

While numerous studies link stress with physical ailments, the effects on your mental health are similarly destructive, Johnston said. “We know that chronic stress can be detrimental to long-term health, and that includes cognitive function, such as focus and concentration, and even your mood, where it can manifest itself as irritability and anxiety.”

She added that everyone responds differently to stress. “It can bring out a range of feelings — anxiety, fear, anger, sadness and frustration being among them.” Mood changes affect our ability to focus, and prolonged, chronic stress can morph into depression.

Studies reflect this: Research reported in Neurology showed how higher blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol can hinder cognitive function. Another study, from the University of California, Berkeley, found that chronic stress can create long-term changes in the brain, which can lead to mental issues, such as anxiety and mood disorders, later in life.

The role food can play in managing stress

Increasingly, people are seeking out natural solutions, and healthy eating has emerged as a vital strategy for managing the body’s response to stress, Johnston said. “Of course, the cornerstone of any diet should be nutritious whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and dairy products. But often people turn to grab-and-go foods that fit their busy lifestyles, which is why food manufacturers are creating options that meet those needs.”

As consumers recognize the link between what they eat and how they feel, food manufacturers are realizing the value in creating foods that can enhance mental performance. They are turning to new ingredients, like CBD and nootropics, that allow their products to do more as the trend toward “functional foods” surges.

Consuming more functional foods and beverages can be a quick and easy way for people to add something positive to their daily routine. While an overall healthy lifestyle with ample sleep and activity is imperative, a stress-reducing diet gives people the ability to do something simple to feel better. “The demand is there, and manufacturers can capitalize on this trend to provide these solutions,” Johnston said.

What are phospholipids?

One promising ingredient gaining traction is milk phospholipids, which can help manage the effects of stress through a variety of mechanisms. “One of these is the impact it has on the primary stress hormone cortisol. Phospholipids can blunt their release and modulate their availability — an effect that is known as ‘stress buffering,'” explained Aaron Fanning, Science Manager, Nutrition, for the Fonterra Research and Development Center, the parent company of the business-to-business dairy ingredient brand NZMP. “This improves the response to stress and strengthens the ability to focus and perform under stress.”

In addition, phospholipids have effects across the body. “They may improve cognitive responses, provide substrate for brain cell creation, maintenance and repair, and offer an anti-inflammatory effect that may help reduce inflammation associated with stress,” Fanning said.

Food manufacturers have been intrigued by the clinical proof that shows the potential of milk phospholipids for stress management when added to various food applications. That’s because phospholipids are the building blocks of all cell membranes in our body and are found in especially high concentrations in the brain.

Phospholipid levels naturally decline as we age. This condition can potentially be improved by phospholipid supplementation, because digested dietary phospholipids absorb easily in humans and cross the blood-brain barrier, which opens the door to finding replacement opportunities.

Milk phospholipids are naturally present in milk, are clean tasting and versatile and can be incorporated in a range of food and beverages.

Eating away stress — healthfully

“Eating to manage stress can help people find the balance and focus in this crazy time,” Johnston said. “NZMP Milk Phospholipids work to reduce the effects of stress, allowing one to be more focused and optimistic in stressful ‘fight or flight’ scenarios.”

Want to know more about how NZMP Milk Phospholipids can be incorporated into your food and beverages? Visit Learn more at

About NZMP

NZMP is the business-to-business dairy-ingredients brand of Fonterra. Trusted globally, NZMP ingredients are sold in more than 100 countries and can be found at the heart of some of the world’s most famous food and nutrition brands. NZMP has one of the broadest ranges of ingredients in the dairy industry, providing hundreds of solutions to meet the needs of customers every day. Backed by Fonterra’s New Zealand grass-fed farming heritage and expertise, world-class processing and leading quality standards, NZMP ingredients deliver real market advantage, trusted for their high performance and exceptional quality.