Functional ingredients brings new meaning to “brain food”


Today’s consumers expect everything to do “more” — just think of the explosion in “smart” and “value-added” products and services like phones. That also extends to food and beverages where often base nutrition isn’t enough anymore. Increasingly, people look for “functional” ingredients that offer health benefits beyond simply providing basic nutrients.

According to global market research firm Precedence Research, the global functional food market was valued at $173.26 billion in 2019 and is expected to rise to $309 billion by 2027. Given the magnitude of the market, food and beverage brands that aren’t part of the movement are missing out on a lucrative opportunity. While foods designed to enhance physical capabilities including energy, muscle build and recovery and weight management are common, today the desire for additional wellness functionality is extending wider, including to mental well-being, with demand for foods and beverages offering improved memory, focus, mood, sleep and stress management benefits.

Why functional foods and beverages are having a moment

“Functional foods and beverages are popular because they are a quick and easy way to augment your daily routine with something healthful, especially now that we are experiencing more stress than ever before,” said Leah Johnston, a registered dietitian and nutritionist.

Consumers are recognizing that foods and beverages can play a role previously filled by supplements. “People have gotten tired of taking a handful of pills and tablets every day and are looking for different, more enjoyable and indulgent ways to reap the benefits” said Rachel Marshall, Technical Engagement Manager, Global Sports and Active Lifestyles at Fonterra, the parent company of the business-to-business dairy-ingredient brand NZMP.

According to Global data, 85% of global consumers prefer to consume health-enhancing ingredients through food and 57% through beverages, compared with only 23% who look to traditional supplement formats, such as pills and tablets. The evolution of new formats for functional foods has rapidly grown since this survey and shows great potential for the use of functional ingredients into foods and beverages to holistically address a wide range of health issues, including mind and body.

With awareness of mental wellness now at the forefront, this previously taboo topic is becoming more openly recognized and discussed, leading people to seek strategies to cope with the challenges of everyday life. This includes discovering ways to focus and perform under stress, while maintaining a positive mood.

“Consumers are actively looking online for food and drink recommendations for peak mental performance and mood regulation,” Marshall said. They are searching for the best food to eat for certain physical and mental benefits. According to Google trends, ‘brain food’ searches have grown by 355% in 2020 compared with 2019, highlighting the opportunity for functional ingredients directed toward mental well-being.

An innovative option provides the cognitive benefits consumers seek

An ingredient receiving a lot of buzz recently is milk phospholipids, a naturally occurring component in milk fat that is clinically shown to help manage stress response, including helping people remain more positive and focused.

“As we look for natural solutions to mental well-being and cognitive challenges, milk phospholipids offer an appealing opportunity, especially since most are familiar with the advantages of dairy products,” Johnston said. “For example, many people already associate a glass of warm milk with a calming ritual.”

“Clinical studies show that milk phospholipids help manage the effects of stress when consumed on a regular basis; hence, they can be part of a regular supplementation regime via foods, beverages or supplement sachets to enable people to maintain a more even keel and ably handle what life throws at them,” Marshall said.

NZMP Milk Phospholipids are a versatile ingredient that can be incorporated into a range of applications such as high-protein dough bars, granola bars and ready-to-mix powders. Besides their functional benefits, they’re neutral tasting so they are easy to add to formulations without flavor challenges. Flavor is and has always been key, Marshall said, citing research that finds 54% of Americans prioritize taste over all other attributes when choosing functional foods and beverages.

That’s one reason NZMP expects widespread interest in its Milk Phospholipids, a soluble whey protein-based powder that is easy to incorporate into everyday nutritional applications. By contrast, many functional components often used to target mental well-being, such as botanicals, are most suited for capsule formats because of their challenging flavor profiles.

“Milk phospholipids are an easy way for brands to fulfill the consumer desire for stress management solutions with an ingredient that’s not only easy to deploy with appealing taste, but also effective,” Marshall said.