Cognitive function is now a mainstream market with strong growth: 2022 Ingredient trends for food, drinks, dietary supplements, and natural products

Published on: 
Nutritional Outlook, Volume 25, Issue 1

Multivitamins and popular ingredients like phosphatidylserine and bacopa will continue driving interest.

Mental health is getting the attention it deserves as the pandemic and world events pile on stress, anxiety, and depression. But did those concerns outshine focus on other fundamentals of brain health—cognitive functions like memory, focus, and mental endurance? Hardly.

“The cognitive and brain health space has seen immense growth over the past year,” reports Kristen Marshall, digital marketing manager, Verdure Sciences (Noblesville, IN). “From brain function and healthy brain aging to improved memory, mood, emotional wellbeing, stress and anxiety, attention, focus, and mental fatigue, the brain and cognitive market has seen tremendous growth and offered clarity to many consumers while mirroring larger trends for mental health and wellbeing globally.”

As consumers dedicate themselves to improving their health and longevity overall, they’re more eager to maintain cognitive function, too. As Marshall says, “Consumers have dramatically shifted toward proactively tackling health and wellbeing.”

Cognitive function is a priority as the number of seniors grows worldwide. “There is an increasing trend to directly target the aging process,” says Steve Holtby, president and CEO, Soft Gel Technologies Inc. (Los Angeles). “A significant concern associated with growing old is the loss of cognitive function, resulting in dementia. As the brain ages, it becomes more prone to inflammation and oxidation, which causes free radical damage to brain cells. The cumulative effect of free radical damage in the brain over the years as a result of aging can negatively influence cognitive function. This can result in memory loss. In order to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, one must look to improving lifestyle by adopting healthy habits.”

While stress and anxiety might be dominating the pandemic discussion, cognitive function remains a permanent concern. During a December 2021 webcast hosted by private-label food supplements manufacturer PharmaLinea (Ljubljana, Slovenia), guest speaker Monika Szelążek, regional client executive for Euromonitor International (London), said: “When it comes to today’s health problems, they center around stress, anxiety, and sleeping disorders. And this is mainly the outcome of the pandemic, lockdown, and social distancing. However, we believe that in the future, in the long-term perspective, health concerns will change, and memory issues will become one of the most important problems.”

Proactive consumers are seeking out cognitive health products now, including dietary supplements and natural products. The fact that the audience for these products is growing beyond just seniors is exciting.

Younger consumers are looking for ways to improve cognitive function—and we have the pandemic to thank for that, says Scott Dicker, senior market insights analyst for SPINS (Chicago). “First, we saw the wave hit sleep support, mood support, stress relief. And then the next wave is, ‘For my overall wellness, I want to be functioning properly.’ So, we saw this growth in brain-support products as well as in things like performance nutrition as people look for peak performance. But not just in sport. A lot of people are working from home,” he says. “They’re looking at computers a lot. There are a lot more distractions at home. I think we can all agree with that. So, these kinds of brain-support products are growing in popularity as well.”

Dicker’s colleague, Haleigh Resetar, SPINS corporate communications specialist, agrees. “As the movement of working from home has been expanding, there are more distractions facing shoppers during their work hours, so there is a greater need for improving awareness and optimizing concentration.”

Abey Thomas, head of global marketing, Natural Remedies (Bangalore, India), says, “The brain-support market has grown widely beyond simply seniors seeking to preserve basic memory and cognitive function as they age. This market now encompasses gamers, students, and young/middle-age adults who are keenly aware that higher-stressed lives negatively impact their mental performance, so they are seeking supplements and other natural means to sustain cognitive acuity and energy.

“Specifically, there are four growing use segments for this market,” he says. 1) Children (“Approximately one out of 10 children has issues with maintaining focus, energy, and attention. Others deal with learning challenges.”); 2) Young and middle-aged adults (“Millennials have the highest levels of stress among adult generations, and they also represent the largest adult population taking products to support mental health.”); 3) Seniors (“This obvious market group remains a core consumer as the risk of development of mild cognitive impairment becomes more common.”); and 4) Gamers (“Esports…have become one of the globe’s fastest-growing professional sports and requires gamers to develop and utilize extreme mental acuity and concentration.”).

Verdure Sciences’ Marshall says, “We have seen interest in the arenas of mental acuity, mood, memory, focus, attention, concentration, mental fatigue, improved learning, quality of sleep (think: alertness upon waking rather than falling asleep), and more.” She says that “esports/gamers, athletes, children and students, women’s health, as well as an aging population are additional areas of focus.”

Demand for cognitive-support supplements—likely born in the natural retail channel where many trends start—is now moving mainstream. Dicker observes how these product trends develop. “A lot of times, they start in the natural channel. When something’s trending high in natural, we know it’s usually just a matter of time before it becomes a mainstream trend. That’s why, at SPINS, when we look at our natural enhanced channel, that’s really our go-to source for new trends.” Based on growing sales of cognitive supplements SPINS saw in the natural channel, subsequent growth in the mainstream market “was to be expected,” he says.

Resetar agrees. “Any curve in the natural channel will over time migrate into the conventional channel. The natural channel is a great [launchpad] for many new products that are trying to introduce into the market.”

Here’s what we saw happening in the mainstream and natural channels in 2021 in terms of brain supplement ingredient sales in the U.S.

Per SPINS multioutlet channel tracking, powered by market researcher IRI (Chicago), overall sales of cognitive health ingredients in the U.S. mainstream supplements market grew 59% in the year ending October 31, 2021, reaching $366 million compared to $230 million a year ago. By contrast, per SPINS natural enhanced channel tracking, overall sales of cognitive health ingredients in the U.S. natural supplements market grew just 0.2% to $35 million.

This eye-popping growth of 59% in the multioutlet channel shows that cognitive health became a mainstream priority in 2021.

Analysts from IRI tell Nutritional Outlook that cognitive health product sales in 2021 were “still strong despite doubling in 2020 versus 2019.” They say: “We looked at a subset of the most popular-selling supplement formulations for brain health—notably Prevagen, Neuriva, and Focus Factor, and a few niche items—as a surrogate for assessing the popularity and growth trends of all brain health supplements. Looking at the overall growth of these supplements and a few others, we note that, overall, their sales grew by 64% versus a year ago for the 52 weeks ending November 28, 2021. Growth in brick-and-mortar outlets (including food, drug, club, and mass, but excluding Costco and such specialty chains as Vitamin Shoppe) was up 54% in the same period—but for online up a whopping 108%.”

They continue: “Bucking a trend we’ve seen in sales of overall dietary supplements, where sales are split about 50/50 online versus brick-and-mortar, for brain supplements sales appear to be concentrated in brick-and-mortar, totaling about 75%. Perhaps most telling is that these brain supplements taken together show growth of 64%, which substantially outpaces the growth of overall nutritional supplements at 10% versus a year ago for the same period noted earlier.”

What are consumers seeking in their brain-support supplements? To start with, “Consumers are looking for ingredients and finished products that they feel good about purchasing, that contribute to a greater good and offer tangible results,” says Verdure Sciences’ Marshall. Beyond that, she says, “Clean-label, sustainable, traceable, and transparent solutions targeting this space have been successful, especially as value and supply chains face seemingly insurmountable challenges.”

She adds: “Verdure has seen substantial interest in the cognitive/brain category—in particular, formulators and consumers have sought out nootropics, adaptogens, mood and mental acuity solutions, as well as clean-label and transparent offerings with robust stories to support positioning. It is almost assumed that this is all supported by clinical substantiation, third-party certifications, and rigorous quality control and assurance.”

Beverages, gummies, and functional foods are all delivery systems to watch, companies say. Ingredient blends, often in the form of multivitamins, are also a key trend to follow in the brain health supplements market, especially in the mainstream where customers are looking for general solutions.

SPINS’s Dicker says that companies are “working on a lot of synergistic formulas, so what I expect to see—and what we are seeing—are a lot more of these brain health blended products rather than people going for a single ingredient.” Among less-experienced supplement users especially, “when people are searching for things, a lot of times they’re searching just for ‘brain health products’ and not necessarily a lot of these single ingredients, which are sometimes harder to pronounce, sometimes a little harder to search for.”

For instance, SPINS tracking of cognitive health ingredient sales in the U.S. multioutlet channel shows ingredients for brain health multivitamins growing significantly in the year ending October 31, 2021. Breaking that down, SPINS cites 99% growth in cognitive health multivitamins for women and 186% growth in cognitive health multivitamins for men.

Dicker observes, “Multivitamins have historically been a strong supplement category. When people are looking to fill the gaps in their everyday nutrition, that’s a logical first product to take.” Among new supplement users, “instead of maybe adding on a second product, a third product, and building their basket that way, when they see that a multivitamin can also help with brain health and these other functions,” they opt for the multivitamin. “And I don’t think brain health is alone in that,” he adds. “When you have a multivitamin that’s multipurpose, that’s going to be attractive to a lot of customers. [It’s a preference] I expect will continue to grow.”

Szelążek at Euromonitor said similar, noting that “consumers are moving towards products which are supposed to target more than just one condition” and that “we have noticed that there is an increased demand for combination products and multivitamins.”

Consumers like the convenience of multivitamins for brain health, SPINS’s Resetar agrees. “Multivitamins are a quick method of receiving necessary nutrients in a small, compact package, making it popular for a society of movers and shakers.”

Of brain health multivitamins, she says, “Much of their growth can be traced back to the trend of overall wellness that was brought on by the pandemic. It is multifunctional to attack many different health focuses. We can expect to see a growth in vitamins that designate different areas of health in addition to their other marketed benefits, including immunity, digestive, and cognitive.” Also, she says, “Growth spurs innovation, and with the growth in multivitamins, we expect to see changes in their form (gummies, candy, powder, liquid), in their packaging, and in what they offer.”

IRI highlights one category leader as evidence. “Focus Factor is a great example of this kind of product, and it grew 47% in 2021 versus 2020,” analysts say. “[It’s] a bit pricey but delivers on the promise of a solid multivitamin with the blend of brain-supportive ingredients.”

When it comes to ingredients selling especially well in the U.S. mainstream cognitive health supplements market, one ingredient with notable growth was phosphatidylserine (PS).

Per SPINS multioutlet channel tracking, PS sales in the mainstream cognitive health supplements market in the U.S. grew 91% in the year ending October 31, 2021, reaching $96 million compared to $50 million a year ago.

“PS represents a trending ingredient in the brain health space, clinically demonstrated to support and improve mind and body performance for consumers of all ages,” says Eran Ivanir, director of clinical development, IFF Health (New York). “A natural building block of our tissues, found in every cell membrane, PS has been shown to play a crucial role in the structure and function of the brain, as well as in muscles and other tissues.”

Laurentia Guesman, business manager, AIDP Inc. (City of Industry, CA), discusses the role of PS in brain health. “PS is a vital phospholipid essential to memory and cognitive health. It is mainly concentrated in the brain and nerves, and is essential to nerve-cell functions. Among other functions, PS dramatically boosts protein kinase C (PKC) activity within the neuronal membranes. PKC is an intracellular messenger enzyme that regulates the release of acetylcholine and dopamine, neurotransmitters that are critical to learning and memory.”

Holtby at Soft Gel Technologies says, “Several multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials on patients with Alzheimer’s disease have suggested that PS improves cognitive performance. PS is a building block for brain cell membranes and protects the function of brain cells by stabilizing the membranes of the cells. Healthy, well-structured cell membranes promote optimal brain cell performance. Brain cell activity is important for proper memory recall. PS may increase brain function by limiting the deterioration of cell membranes that contribute to brain aging.”

He adds, “It has been demonstrated in clinical trials to improve memory, concentration, word recall, and mood in middle-aged and elderly subjects with dementia and age-related cognitive decline. For older adults with moderate cognitive impairment, PS has produced consistently modest increases in recall of word lists.”

Guesman and others point out that “PS is the only dietary ingredient with two FDA qualified health claims related to reducing risk of cognitive dysfunction and dementia in older adults.”

“While many nutraceutical ingredients have been touted for their ability to improve cognitive performance, few have the scientific backing of PS,” adds Holtby.

“PS has proven to be an effective supplement for cognitive health, and those results are attributing to its growth,” agrees SPINS’s Resetar.

The science backing PS is strong—and continues to grow not only on brain-related health concerns such as mood and stress but also sports, skin health, and more.

“Research is absolutely expanding for PS, which has helped drive the increase in sales,” says Mike Petteruti, president and general manager, Chemi Nutra (Austin, TX). “Some of the most notable data we have seen in recent years has been for stress benefits, particularly for cortisol reduction. In addition to stress, we see an ever-expanding base for the cognitive and memory applications of the ingredient as PS has historically been used.”

IFF’s Ivanir points out the benefits of PS for both mental and physical stress. “While PS is most commonly known for its effects on cognitive function, there are other effects that have been identified in humans. For instance, several clinical studies examine the effects of PS on exercise, and it’s shown to improve several different aspects.”

He continues: “Intake of PS is known to lessen the increases in cortisol that are associated with mental stress as well as physical stress (exercise). Since PS is a safe dietary ingredient, supplements containing PS may provide an effective alternative for those seeking to ease day-to-day stress and keep a balanced mood.”

Holtby adds that “Recent studies have been conducted with PS as it relates to the stress experienced by athletes (including Olympians, runners, and golfers)—and how it may improve exercise performance. In addition to PS reducing cortisol levels, it was also found to increase physical performance, hasten recovery, and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness.”

Supplementation with PS may also benefit the skin’s health. “PS affects the skin with at least two different mechanisms of action that are complementary to one another,” Ivanir explains. “The first effect relates to the way PS affects the levels of internal collagen production, studied in cell and animal research. Reduction in collagen formation results in skin wrinkling and drying. The second effect identified relates to the way in which PS affects the production of another protein, known as MMP1, which is an enzyme responsible for collagen breakdown. The two combined effects of synthesis or formation of collagen and on breakdown of collagen leads to an overall result of increased collagen formation.”

This is an especially promising area, Chemi Nutra’s Petteruti agrees. “I would say that PS is heavily used for cognitive and stress benefits, but the skin application is one that I believe will get much more attention in the future.”

Due to such wide-ranging health benefits, “Research on PS suggests that people of all ages can benefit from taking PS as a dietary supplement,” says Ivanir. “From children needing to improve their attention span to adults working at intellectually challenging jobs, to seniors concerned about age-related cognitive impairment, cognitive function is top of mind.”

PS supplements are also evolving to accommodate a broader audience. “Innovation for PS has been strong with new gummy, chocolate, and high-dose powder applications,” says Petteruti. He adds, “But I believe the synergy that we see with other ingredients is the true area of innovation for the ingredient. We see a great deal of combinations with focus on stress/cortisol and cognitive enhancement (nootropic combinations). There are many ingredients that work well in combination with PS and very few, if any, that would be counterproductive to add in with PS.”

In addition to phospholipids like PS, botanical ingredients for brain health are performing strongly.

Mushroom sales continue to grow. Per SPINS natural enhanced channel tracking, sales of mushroom ingredients in the U.S. natural cognitive health supplements market grew 10% in the year ending October 31, 2021. Mushrooms are now the leading ingredient in the natural cognitive health channel. Both Dicker and Resetar at SPINS say lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) is the standout among mushrooms, with Resetar pointing out that lion’s mane “is already showing up in coffee/teas and in sweet frozen treats.”

Bacopa monnieri is another botanical with growing sales in brain health supplements. Per SPINS multioutlet channel tracking, bacopa sales in the U.S. mainstream cognitive health supplements market grew 117% in the year ending October 31, 2021, while bacopa sales in the U.S. natural cognitive health supplements market grew 19%.

Bacopa suppliers say they’ve seen demand grow over the past two years. “Focus and concentration are critical to achievement of goals, both professional and personal/leisure. Bacopa is becoming more recognized, and favorably so, by consumers who are more interested in increasing their ability to learn and do more mentally,” says Natural Remedies’ Thomas.

Marshall at Verdure Sciences says bacopa is gaining attention among consumers including esport gamers and other athletes, children and students, women, as well as aging adults. “Bacopa has been used traditionally to help students in preparing for exams, for children to focus in school, and [for] military use for increased mental acuity without jittery side effects,” she adds.

Research continues to substantiate bacopa’s positive effects. Marshall says a recently published study on her company’s proprietary bacopa ingredient showed it can support emotional and mental wellbeing, stress, alertness, focus, and quality of life—all while improving sleep quality without causing grogginess.

And Thomas at Natural Remedies says his company’s proprietary bacopa ingredient has research showing that it preserves and promotes cognitive and memory functions in middle-aged and senior adults, with a recently published review highlighting its mechanisms of action, including acting as a neuroprotectant via antioxidant action and stimulating the dopamine and serotonin pathways. Meanwhile, in children, the ingredient has been shown to improve logical verbal memory, short-term working memory, mental control, short-term visual memory, and auditory memory, as well as attention span.

Nearly all ingredients in the mainstream cognitive health supplements channel are growing, says SPINS, including Ginkgo biloba, DMAE, and fish oil concentrate. In the natural channel, ginkgo, magnesium, and vitamin B12 show growth.

Will the success of brain health supplements continue post-pandemic? There’s certainly room for more. IRI points out, “As best as we can tell, it would seem that brain health supplements are growing rapidly but are still quite in their infancy, accounting for about 3% of total dietary supplement sales in brick-and-mortar.” Chances are good that cognitive health supplements will continue prospering in 2022, “unless any bad news comes out on the key ingredients often used in brain supplements,” the analysts add.

Beyond 2022, the picture is less clear, says SPINS. Resetar expects some slowing. “Consumers are living longer than ever before, increasing the want for supplements that can keep their minds sharp for as long as possible. The cognitive health category will continue to grow, but most likely at a lower rate.”

And Dicker says, “I think near-term, for sure; I think long-term, it will be interesting to see how it plays out.” For instance, in terms of the new first-time customers cognitive supplements attracted during the pandemic, “it will be interesting to see how many of them are retained as repeat customers, as sometimes these specialty supplements are not things that have a quick refill rate. As people…try a product, if they’re not getting immediate results, are they going to go back and try it again? Are they going to try a different brain health supplement, or are they going to be turned off of the category altogether?”

He concludes: “I do think there’s a lot of room for growth. I think there’s a lot of strong products out there. So, I do expect it to grow in 2022. When we go beyond that, it’s going to be really interesting to see.”