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The gut-brain axis and 'good mood foods'

Article-The gut-brain axis and 'good mood foods'

As multinational CPG firms start to explore the gut-brain axis and identify ingredients that naturally boost calming neurotransmitters, we look at opportunities for product development in the ‘food for mood’ space.

In January, Unilever announced it has teamed up with Holobiome, a biotechnology company that develops microbiome-based therapeutics for mental health, in a research partnership to understand the links between the gut, the brain and the food we eat.

Explaining the reasons behind the partnership, Unilever said:

“The human body is an incredibly complex ecosystem. This enormous community of bacteria is part of an army of micro-organisms that together make up our gut microbiome and they have been shown to influence our health in many ways, including our metabolism, our susceptibility to disease and our immune response.”

According to some estimates, for every human cell in the body, there is at least one bacterial cell either on the skin or inside the body, and a growing body of research is uncovering what is known as the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis describes the communication that occurs between the gut and the brain via neurotransmitters, which convey messages using chemical pathways.

Holobiome, founded by research scientists from Northeastern University in the US, says it has identified the specific gut bacteria that naturally produce these neurotransmitters, and its research partnership with Unilever aims to identify the prebiotic ingredients, such as dietary fibres and some polyphenols, that these neurotransmitter-producing bacteria prefer to interact with.

“The long-term ambition is to add meaningful amounts of these ingredients to certain foods and refreshment products across Unilever’s portfolio to naturally boost levels of certain calming neurotransmitters in the gut, in turn improving mental wellbeing,” Dr Simone Pyle, science and technology manager for the gut microbiome at Unilever, told Fi Global Insights. “The outcome of the research and the ingredients that are identified will influence the timing, potential categories and formats where these ingredients could be applied.

Eat yourself happy

According to Euromonitor, more than 70% of consumers are concerned that stress and anxiety are having a moderate or severe impact on their health, and there is a growing demand for products that positively impact health and mental well-being, particularly as interest in holistic health grows.

UK granola company Bio & Me makes granola breakfast cereals that are full of prebiotic fibre. Each product contains 15 different plant-based ingredients for gut diversity, such as oats, chicory, sorghum, chia, linseed, quinoa, and pumpkin seeds. Its website tells consumers that good gut health can help with better mental health and that it is a question of “looking after your health and happiness from the inside out”.

However, speaking in a recent Fi Global Insights webinar, Aurore de Monclin, global director of marketing & strategy and managing partner at The Healthy Marketing Team, said there is currently a gap between scientific research into the gut-brain axis and public understanding of it. 

“The challenge is that, although the science is advancing quite fast, consumer understanding is a bit behind when it comes to the connection between food and the brain, and it is not yet established in the consumer’s mind. The ‘psychobiotic’ is emerging as a really interesting new field of science and the scientific narrative is well-developed but it hasn’t really been translated into consumer-friendly concepts,” de Monclin said.

Patent activity suggests market interest

Neha Srivastava, patent analyst for food, drink, beauty and personal care at Mintel, said interest in ‘food for mood’ can be seen in patent activity as food and drink companies seek to develop new ingredients that have a positive impact on mood, emotional wellbeing and cognitive health.

“As mood and emotional wellbeing become as important as physical wellbeing, brands have started innovating food and drink products that contribute to feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, mood enhancement and calming. The patent publication trend for mood-enhancing food and drinks shows a marked increase over recent years,” she added.

The gut-brain axis is not the only pathway that can be targetted for mood-enhancing foods. Srivastava pointed to a PCT publication by Nestlé, which claims a blend of curcumin and omega-3 fatty acid can increase antioxidant capacity, reduce oxidative stress and enhance mitochondrial function, thereby improving stress-related mood disorder.

As regulatory authorities have not substantiated health claims for many of the ingredients being used, brands need to think about their positioning. Referring to the US drinks brand Recess, which adds hemp, ginseng, L-theanine and lemon balm to its range, De Monclin said:

“The strategy here is not only about claims; products need to deliver on beliefs and emotional values. The brand Recess is positioning themselves as the antidote to modern times where we all have ‘too many tabs open in our browsers and our brain’. They are saying that [they] canned a feeling of being calm and collected.”