Food for the Brain: The promise of cognitive-health functional foods

April 13, 2020

Interest is rising in brain-health foods, writes one company, pointing to two examples of promising ingredients.

Significant changes in the food industry in the last decades have affected what we eat, resulting in certain nutritional deficiencies or nutritional imbalances. One example is omega-3 fatty acids, whose consumption has declined in parallel with a huge increase in consumption of omega-6 fatty acids. As the nutritional content of our food changed, many turned to nutritional supplements to fulfill certain needs in their diet, giving rise to a huge industry of dietary supplements, composed mostly of capsules, tablets, and softgels, closer in form to drugs than food. In recent years, however, "pill fatigue" has been an issue, and consumers have started looking for alternatives to tablets and capsules.

Pill fatigue has given rise to the fast-growing gummy market, while fluid solutions (shots and tinctures) and others (i.e., nutritional bars) are not far behind. An alternative method for consuming nutritional ingredients is to get them directly from functional foods, foods to which certain nutrients are added on top of the naturally occurring nutrients of the food. Why take your probiotic in a pill when you can get them from a delicious yogurt? Why take your botanicals in a tablet when you can get them in a refreshing beverage? Thus, we may have come full circle, from food, to supplements, and back to food.

Interest Rising in Brain-Health Foods

One highly interesting segment of the functional food market is cognitive-enhancing foods and beverages. This is a fast-growing segment as more and more people pay closer attention to their mental and cognitive state. Such consumers may be students who want support for their long hours of studying, office workers needing to be attentive and focused, gamers who want to perform better, and ordinary people who do not suffer from cognitive decline but still want to enhance and support brain function in the fast-paced world we live in.

Cognitive-health ingredients can be generally divided into structural components: 1) ingredients that are naturally occurring building blocks of our bodies (for example omega-3 fatty acid DHA, choline, certain vitamins and minerals), and 2) botanicals (for example, Ginkgo biloba, Bacopa monnieri). When such ingredients are known to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), they can usually be added to foods, making these foods functional.

One example of a structural component with cognitive effects is phosphatidylserine, or PS. PS is a phospholipid that is a component of cell membranes and is especially enriched within brain cells/tissues. Effects of consuming a variety of PS products on brain function have been studied in various populations of all ages, from children to seniors. PS is also the only brain-health food ingredient with FDA-approved qualified health claims related to cognition. The organoleptic properties of PS (its lack of taste or smell) make it a perfect partner for certain foods-first and foremost, the dairy industry. In certain parts of the world, mainly in Asia, PS is already used in dairy products, and popularity is growing.

Another example, this time using a brain-health botanical, is green oats (Avena sativa). In recent years, the potential biological effects of green oats have been tested in several clinical studies, where chronic intake was found to improve blood flow, including to the brain (1). Acute (single dose) intake was reported to increase the speed of performance of cognitive tasks (2). (Disclaimer: Both of these studies were performed on Neuravena, an ingredient from the author’s company). This latter characteristic of green oats makes it especially promising for use by gamers of e-sports, where the speed of performance is ever important. Being water-soluble, green oats can go into beverages, and possibly even be used as a replacement for high-caffeine drinks. This activity, combined with the ever-increasing popularity of oat milk, enhances the appeal of green oats even more.

Growing Potential

In one of the UK’s largest retail stores, the number of shelves where customers can find health ingredients incorporated into actual foods has quadrupled over the last three years. Foods fortified with ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, omega-3, and probiotics have gained mainstream status in many countries. As more and more brands look to differentiate and enter the functional food space, it is expected that consumers will start looking for cognitive (or heart, or joint) health support in the dairy refrigerator or the beverage section, and not just on the supplement shelves.

Itay Shafat, PhD, is product manager for IFF Health (New York City), covering cognitive health and sports nutrition.


1. Wong RH et al. “Chronic consumption of a wild green oat extract (Neuravena) improves brachial flow-mediated dilatation and cerebrovascular responsiveness in older adults.” Journal of Hypertension, vol. 31, no. 1 (January 2013): 192-200
2. Kennedy DO et al. “Acute effects of a wild green-oat (Avena sativa) extract on cognitive function in middle-aged adults: A double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subjects trial.” Nutritional Neuroscience, vol. 20, no. 2 (February 2017): 135-151