Smart Ingredients for a Healthy Brain

Maintaining the health of our brains as we age is a growing market for food & beverage products. Increasing evidence shows certain foods and ingredients can help nourish the brain and support cognitive health.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

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Blueberries also help increase neural signaling in the brain centers, affirms James Joseph, lead scientist in the Laboratory of Neuroscience at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “When it comes to brain protection, there’s nothing quite like blueberries. Call the blueberry the brain berry,” he says.

Recent studies led by Robert Krikorian at University of Cincinnati suggest that regular consumption of wild blueberries may slow the loss of cognitive function and decrease depression in the elderly, says the Wild Blueberry Assn. of North America (
Pratt also calls blueberries brain berries. “They protect the brain from oxidative stress and may reduce the effects of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.” Pratt also likes avocados, saying they’re almost as good as blueberries for brain health.

The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council ( echoes these assessments, adding that phytochemicals found in fruits like blueberries continue to be investigated for their health benefits in slowing the aging process and memory loss. Studies on blueberry-supplemented diets have shown measurable improvements in memory, coordination and balance as well as neuron regeneration.

Other brain boosters

Nancy Emerson-Lombardo of Boston University and the Brain Health and Wellness Center recently discussed how diet can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Brain health is profoundly affected by the health of the rest of the body, Emerson-Lombardo claims. “Brain foods” can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by five years.

She recommends plant foods (particularly green leafy vegetables, dried beans and berries), which prevent oxidation of omega-3 fatty acids, and fewer animal foods. Food formulators can look to whole grains, fish, nuts, flaxseed oil, spinach, chia seeds and soybeans as good sources of brain-healthy omegas. Vitamins B, C, D, E (d-alpha tocopherol) are very important as well, she points out.

PLT Health Solutions (, Morristown, N.J., is actively engaged in the cognitive health space with a range of ingredients relevant to various aspects of cognitive functioning. PLT’s Zembrin Sceletium tortuosum, which has GRAS status, is the first patented, standardized and clinically studied extract of Sceletium tortuosum available for functional foods and beverages that experientially supports enhanced mood and improved cognitive function, the company claims.

“Clinical trials studying Zembrin on the brain showed that 25mg of the extract reduced anxiety-related activity of brain neurons and its associated anxiety circuitry within two hours,” explains Barbara Davis, PLT’s vice president of medical and scientific affairs.

The trials show the extract’s potential in helping manage stress. “In the past year, two additional clinical studies have been published, demonstrating the effectiveness of this ingredient in cognitive health (specifically, stress reduction),” she says. PLT has invested more than $4 million to date in R&D readying Zembrin for North American commercialization.

A closer look at lutein, stimulants

Lutein, a yellow carotenoid, also can influence long-term brain health, research indicates. While typically known for improving eye health, lutein demonstrates a link between macular pigment density and general cognitive function in healthy elderly people.

Natural sources of lutein are green leafy vegetables and other green or yellow vegetables. Cooked kale and spinach top the list, according to the USDA. A large number of Americans aren’t receiving adequate levels of lutein in their everyday diets, and many aren’t familiar with lutein, reports the USDA Nutrient Database.

Astaxanthin, also a carotenoid, is said to guard certain brain functions associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Found in certain marine plants and animals, astaxanthin is said to be 50 times more powerful than beta-carotene for its antioxidant effects and its removal of free radicals in the body. Its highest natural concentration is found in wild Pacific sockeye salmon.

DSM Nutritional Products (, Schenectady, N.Y., offers several ingredients that benefit the eyes and brain. Fortitech elaVida olive-based natural antioxidant is a versatile polyphenol made from olives in a proprietary solvent-free process. Life’s Omega60 DHA/EPA oil, made from algae, provides a vegetarian alternative to fish sources.

More is being discovered about caffeine’s ability to boost energy and focus. Coffee has been providing alertness for years. Caffeine activates neuro pathways and blocks receptors from a chemical called adenosine, which normally prevents the release of excitatory brain chemicals. Harvard University’s Medical School says with adenosine out of the way, these brain-sparking chemicals can flow more freely – providing a surge of energy and potentially improving mental performance while slowing age-related mental decline.

Ram Chaudhari, senior executive vice president and chief scientific officer at DSM, notes one of four young and seven in 10 elderly adults consume coffee, so the market is ready for more caffeinated products.

“With increasing demographic trends toward older populations, the underlying market demand for cognitive-boosting products is bound to increase substantially,” Chaudhari explains. “In the future, we are also likely to see more research into complementary medical approaches, such as using fortified products with proven cognitive benefit, along with traditional dementia treatments that impact cognitive function.”

BI Nutraceuticals (, Rancho Dominguez, Calif., is adding to its line of cognitive function ingredients, says Randy Kreienbrink, marketing vice president. BI is developing smoothies, bars and beverages with such memory boosters as yerba mate, ginkgo, sage, ginseng, grape seed, turmeric and St. John’s wort, among others.

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