Snacking and stress: Better choices for better cognitive performance

Consumers transformed many of their eating habits in 2020: We stockpiled more, we cooked more and we certainly snacked more. In fact, the 2020 Global Consumer Snacking Trends Study from Mondelez and The Harris Poll found that 88% of adults snacked more or the same as before the pandemic, with more than 66% citing the activity as “one of the few sources of reward and satisfaction in my day,” and an additional 70% finding snacks to be as key to their mental and emotional wellbeing as their physical wellbeing.

The reason seems pretty clear to Emma Dunstone-Brown, Strategic Ventures Manager at Fonterra, the parent company of the business-to-business dairy-ingredient brand NZMP, given the link between snacking and stress, which seem to be rising in tandem. “People have always been stressed, but now people are talking much more openly about its effect on mental wellness and mood,” she said. When conducting social listening around stress and mood, her team found stress-related conversations accounted for 1.7 million posts in the second half of 2020, representing a 41% increase from the prior year.

“In addition to basic nutritional needs, many also snack for more emotional reasons, including comfort and indulgence … as a way to treat themselves,” she said. And, they want a snack that makes them feel great…increasingly people are turning to food and beverages to support their health goals, with nearly 40% saying their interest in “mood food” has become stronger in the last two years.

As people seek solutions to up their mental health, nutrition that supports mood improvement is a compelling piece of the puzzle.  

The nutritional link between stress and mental health

Nearly half of Americans actively work to treat or prevent stress and anxiety, but conventional drugs have lost their allure as a quick fix, finds The Hartman Group’s Functional Food & Beverages and Supplements 2020 report.

Instead, there is stronger interest in functional foods and beverages to address mental wellness, which includes brain cognition/mental acuity, stress and anxiety, and mood enhancement. While products linked to better digestion and immunity are common, this trend toward a focus on mental well-being is just emerging, representing a huge opportunity to first-mover brands.

One of those opportunities lies in milk phospholipids, which are rich in the milk fat globule membrane, a natural component of milk fat. Several clinical studies have found that regular consumption delivers benefits for stress management, including the ability to maintain positive and focused under stress. 

“NZMP has two ingredients naturally rich in Milk Phospholipids and are mild, milky-tasting powders which lend themselves well to inclusion in snack foods and beverages without having a battle to mask the flavor,” explained Rachel Marshall, Technical Engagement Manager, Global Sports and Active Lifestyles at Fonterra.

Marrying consumer preferences for sensory issues, wellness benefits and care for the environment

The mild taste of NZMP’s milk phospholipids is key, given the importance of achieving the right sensory profile. “If a snack doesn’t taste good or provide a satisfying texture, there won’t be a repeat purchase,” said Marshall, adding that it’s especially true if it is being eaten for emotional reasons where the indulgence quotient is often a factor. Taste is a challenge for many competing solutions; for example, many of the nootropics on the market for mental well-being and focus have challenging flavors, such as bitterness.

The importance of taste means brands may need to rethink their traditional formats to maintain the key elements consumers love, while enhancing the nutritional profile to make them more permissible for those who also strive to feel good about what they eat.

Marshall shares that NZMP has two milk phospholipids powders with versatile compositional and function characteristics, making them flexible for use in a range of consumer formats to deliver stress management benefits. These include ready-to-mix powders, nutritional bars, ready-to-drink beverages (including protein shakes and coffee) and supplements.  

One form is heat stable making it suitable for use in applications  exposed to heat, such as shelf stable ready to drink beverages, and as stand-alone sachets, which can be mixed into foods or added to  cold or hot beverages, including your morning coffee. The other is well suited to ready-to-mix protein powders and on-the-go foods where mess-free delivery is crucial, such as granola and dough-based nutrition bars.

Coupled with the strong interest in functional foods and beverages, there is a burgeoning interest in natural and sustainably sourced food ingredients, especially those you can pronounce. This gives the opportunity to leverage sustainable farming and production practices that will appeal to conscious consumers. “At NZMP we proudly use pasture grazing and follow the natural seasonality to identify the best time to milk our cows, which leads to high-quality product and additional claims around these practices for our milk phospholipids customers,” Dunstone-Brown said.

As consumers look to manage their stress, stay focused in their work and maintain more positive moods through more sophisticated snacking choices, brands can turn to ingredients such as milk phospholipids to support them. “Even small changes in a formulation can move the dial from a guilty indulgence to something consumers feel better about with regular use, while giving them a sensory and emotional fix at the same time,” Dunstone-Brown said.