Consumers Say They Want ‘Brain Benefits’ — What Do They Mean? Translating the Science


The challenges of translating consumer demands to validated scientific measures, and vice versa.

Forgetful man  Photo ©

Forgetful man Photo ©

Translational science is designed to impact us — in contrast to studies on test animals or more basic research inquiries. Both are important, but translational research informs what impacts our day-to-day lives, to include food products available in your local grocery and dietary guidance of all forms.

Consumers are expressing growing interest in mental agility, attention, focus, mood-management and memory — a set of “brain benefits” with diverse descriptions. Since 2019, the marketing literature has hailed these optimized cognitive outcomes as “ripe with opportunity” for the food and supplement sector. And this trend does not appear to be waning.

In parallel, there is interest in clear research on the cognitive benefits of foods, diets and dietary supplements. This goes for companies innovating to meet consumer demands and for the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. That committee, for the second time, is evaluating the relationship between dietary patterns and neurocognitive outcomes.

When measuring the impact of foods, nutrients or supplements on cognition, there are many testing options, with the selection of the cognitive performance test based on the benefit of interest. However, to what degree the outcomes measured by validated cognitive performance tests in nutrition research reflect outcomes of consumer interest has yet to be documented.

Understanding what effects research tools can detect, and alignment of those effects with consumer understanding or desires, is critical to the development of products that support realistic cognitive benefits. It also must square with dietary guidance substantiated by science.

The Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS) looked more closely at the matches and mis-matches between consumers desire for “brain benefits,” and validated cognitive performance measurement tools.

When developing new foods or ingredients, it’s common practice to use focus groups to narrow down the kinds of product characteristics that have potential market success. The next step is to evaluate existing science or start new research and development to advance candidate products. This can be more straightforward if the target is a measurable physiological effect, e.g., reduced cholesterol or improved glycemic response.

Cognitive performance outcomes are, however, complicated by both a nuanced framework and a specialized psychological lexicon. They capture various types of memory and attention, with important differences.

In this matching research exercise, IAFNS-funded scientists found that consumers sought benefits linked to well-known cognitive performance tests, such as those for short-term memory or sustained attention. But consumers also described other types of memory functions which have not been a focus of past nutrition research.

Memory challenges like remembering to pick up milk on the way home, or to take medication at the right time, were priorities for subjects in the study — but this type of memory (prospective memory) has not been researched related to nutrition or diet. Although there is an available test, whether it would be appropriately sensitive to nutrition is not known.

Similarly, consumers were interested in being “in the zone” — a concept in psychology that is also known as a “flow state”. We’ve all had those moments in which we lost track of time during a task. Like the prospective memory question about medication, the impacts of nutrition on “flow state” have yet to be examined. Again, it is unclear if the numerous available validated scales would be sensitive to nutrition effects. IAFNS anticipates making these publications freely available later in 2024.

This research poses conundrums and opportunities. When asking consumers what they want, is the consumer language translatable to products and ingredients in ways that can be substantiated with science? When there is a measurable physiological indicator, benefits are not difficult to verify. However, when the desired outcome is in essence, a “feeling,” or “vibe,” translating to a test can be challenging. Are there validated methods to test such a hypothesis? The IAFNS work indicates that there may be an opportunity for test validation for new purposes.

There are growing opportunities to both identify and close gaps between the science and consumer preferences. Doing so will enable development of both science-based products and dietary recommendations supporting cognitive benefits. Engaging the academic, industry and government sectors on this scientific challenge will improve public health over the long-term.

Marie Latulippe, MS, MBA, RDN is Director of Science Programs at IAFNS.

Investigators from NORC, Swansea University, Monash University, Rutgers University, Northwestern University, and IAFNS formed the Consumer Research on Nutrition Cognitive Benefits Expert Group that conducted this research.

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