The emergence of nutrition psychiatry
The Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia is a research centre specialising in the nascent field of nutrition psychiatry. While the concept of comfort food shows how people intuitively understand the food-mood connection, the science is just beginning to catch up, according to Dr Sarah R Dash, nutrition researcher and honorary member at the centre.
“[…] studies from Spain, Norway, Australia and the US have all shown that following a healthy, ‘traditional’ dietary pattern, consisting of the foods we know to be good for us – colourful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and healthy fats – is protective of your mental health,” Dash writes. “The unfortunate, and perhaps unsurprising news is that the reverse appears to be true as well; unhealthy, processed ‘junk’ foods are not only bad news for our waistlines or hearts, but for our mental health too.”
The Food & Mood Centre gives five simple eating tips for people wishing to manage their mental health through diet. It advises individuals to follow ‘traditional’ dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean, Norwegian, or Japanese diets; increase fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts, and seeds; limit intake of ultra-processed foods; eat wholesome nutritious foods for every meal and snack, and start small with sustainable changes.
The five NPD challenges
Public awareness of the links between certain foods and stress, relaxation and sleep has never been greater. Despite this interest, countless companies have failed to successfully market food products delivering a mood benefit over the past 10 years.
According to Julian Mellentin, founder of food industry consultancy New Nutrition Business, food brands face a significant challenge because they must find an ingredient that fulfils five specific criteria. Firstly, the ingredient in question must be legal; secondly, manufacturers must be authorised to use it in a sufficient dosage to deliver the promised benefit; thirdly, it must taste good; consumers must also feel a tangible benefit; and, finally, it needs to “make sense” in the product.
“Coffee beans in a snack bar or drink will be easy to accept but something unknown like L-theanine will fail this test,” Mellentin explains.
Nevertheless, there a few success stories, one of which is Japanese confectionery company Ezaki Glico’s stress-reducing ‘Mental Balance Chocolate GABA’. Launched in 2005, the chocolate bar contains 280 mg of gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) per 100g – around 25 times more than standard chocolate’s 9 mg – and the brand generates around $50 million (€45 million) a year in retail sales.
“Perhaps more successes will emerge once brands that contain cannabidiol (CBD) improve their taste and marketing,” writes Mellentin in New Nutrition Business’ 2020 trends report. “But beyond CBD, finding a solution which can move mood from emergent trend to something bigger will require significant investment in science by both ingredient suppliers and brand owners.
“In the short term, it’s foods that are seen by consumers as ‘natural mood boosters’ that will continue to benefit most, along with some of the established avoidance trends, all fuelled by an emerging body of science backing ‘nutri-psychiatry’, by social media and by influencers”
Manufacturers wishing to tap into the ‘avoidance trends’ can reduce the sugar and carb content of their products while focusing on its minimally processed profile. Meanwhile, established ‘natural mood boosters’ include healthy fats such as omega-3 (present in fish, nuts, seeds and avocado) and gut friendly foods (fermented products such as kefir, kombucha, and probiotics).
Applying findings to packaged foods
Nootropics, substances said to improve cognitive functions or mental performance in healthy people, and are most often used to boost memory, focus and creativity, are also generating consumer interest, with natural sources including B vitamins omega-3, caffeine, tryptophan, L-theanine, and CBD oil.
Deakin University’s Food & Mood Centre does not explicitly recommend choosing a nootropic packaged snack for cognitive health. Nevertheless, could such products be beneficial if they have a simple, wholefood ingredient list or are fortified with added nutrients such as polyphenols?
One study published in 2016 found that women who consumed diets high in several types of flavonoids, a specific group of polyphenols called flavonoids found in foods such as oranges, berries, and cocoa, had a lower risk of depression.
They could be, according to Helena Gibson-Moore, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation.
“Aside from taste, appearance, and price, there is an increasing expectation from consumers about the food we eat on its perceived ‘healthiness’ and preference for ‘natural’ over ‘processed’ products,” she tells Fi Global Insights. “Since consumers maybe becoming more aware of the health benefits associated with the consumption of polyphenols, fortifying foods with polyphenols may be welcomed.”
However, Gibson-Moore also expresses concern over the idea of fortifying processed foods with a select few healthy components because individuals may choose to replace healthy whole foods such as fruits and vegetables with packaged products. Even if these processed products have been formulated to have a healthy nutritional profile, the ingredients may lack certain benefits that come from following a healthy dietary pattern such as eating fibre or other potentially interacting nutrients and bioactive compounds in the food matrix, she adds.
The importance of science-backed claims
In any case, brands bringing ‘food for mood’ products to market need to invest in scientific research to back up their claims.
New Zealand brand Ārepamakes a plant-based nootropic drink using New Zealand blackcurrants (that it calls ‘neuroberries’), which are high in polyphenols and anthocyanins, and green tea for the amino acid L-theanine.
The start-up spent over five years developing the formula and says that if consumers have doubts over the science behind the drink, this is because of years of misleading marketing from ‘Big Food’.
“We knew when we started, we would be met with scepticism thanks to people being falsely marketed to over the years from multinational companies selling caffeine and sugar as the ideal solution to peak cognitive performance,” it says. “We therefore continue to research, test and develop our formula as well as utilising cutting edge food-technology to ensure our products are efficacious.”
It is currently working with Auckland University’s School of Psychology University to assess how drinking Ārepaaffects neurocognitive performance and brain wave activity through a placebo-controlled randomised cross-over trial.
Although niche and nascent, the ‘foods for good mood’ category is already attracting interest from big players. Mondelez, for instance, has invested in prebiotic brand Uplift Foods whose “psychobiotic” dietary supplement powder contains fibre and resistant starch from green banana flour, Jerusalem artichoke, tapioca and lupin. According to the company’s website, 90% of the “mood elevating” hormone serotonin is found in the gut, highlighting the importance of the gut-mood connection.