Awareness of the importance of getting enough sleep to overall physical and mental health is growing globally. However, many modern lifestyle factors, such as stress, diet, and increasing use of blue light-emitting screens in the evening, are not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one third of US adults usually get less than the recommended amount of sleep. Sleep problems are also common in Europe, with around 17% of people in Denmark and Italy reporting disrupted sleep, rising to 31% in Poland.
There is therefore a growing global appetite for products that aid sleep naturally. In China, 42% of consumers have taken health supplements to improve sleep quality while 37% of Thai consumers find the claim "improves sleep quality" appealing when choosing a food and drink product, according to Mintel data.
The food industry is meeting this demand by developing food and drink products that contain functional ingredients associated with a better night’s sleep. However, getting the right format, formulation, and branding is not always easy.
Cereal for sleep: Marketing style over scientific substantiation?
In February, US company Post Consumer Brands launched a ready-to-eat evening cereal, Sweet Dreams, that was designed to be part of a healthy sleep routine.
Available in two flavours that are marketed as “blueberry midnight” and “honey moonglow”, the cereals are made with whole grains, vitamins, and minerals including zinc, folic acid, and B vitamins to support natural melatonin production. The brand also uses botanical flavours that are commonly associated with sleep, such as lavender and chamomile.
Logan Sohn, senior brand manager for Sweet Dreams, said the range could help people “establish healthy night-time habits by providing a nutrient dense before-bed snack made to support a sleep routine”.
However, despite describing the “notes of lavender and chamomile” prominently on-pack, Sweet Dreams cereal does not contain any botanical extracts of lavender or chamomile to promote sleep. Instead, according to the ingredient list, it contains “natural lavender and chamomile flavours”.
For a product that is positioned as being good for holistic health, it is also high in added sugar. The ingredient list notes cane sugar, invert sugar, corn syrup, sugar, molasses, and barley malt extract (an unrefined sweetener), and one portion contains 13 g of added sugar.
So, is this a case of marketing style over scientific substance?
Yes, according to food industry commentator Marion Nestle, who added the product to her Annals of marketing blog where she regularly names and shames food companies for their misleading marketing practices.
“I hardly know where to begin,” Nestle wrote. “Curated vitamins and minerals”? “Supports natural melatonin production”? This last is a structure/function claim like those for supplements. It requires only the barest hint of scientific substantiation.” She added: “I ate this cereal in the morning. It did not make me feel sleepy.”
Dr Carrie Ruxton, nutritionist and director at Nutrition Communications, agreed that Sweet Dreams cereal was unlikely to promote sleep. A better tactic would be to limit screen time, have a warm bath, and read or listen to a podcast before bed, she said.
“There is limited evidence that specific foods help us get a better night’s sleep,” Ruxton told us. “Some studies have suggested that a high carb snack in the evening can make us sleepy, but this would also apply to a banana or a slice of toast. You don’t need to buy a special cereal product, especially one that is 24% sugar.”
Functional sleep-aid drinks
A more common format for sleep-aid products is beverages. Sleep drinks are often formulated in shot form (around 70 ml) to reduce the likelihood that the consumer will need to wake up during the night to urinate. UK functional drink brand B.Fresh, for instance, makes a sleep shot with active ingredients that it says are “verified by nutrition experts”.
Ruxton said: “There is better evidence that what we choose to drink can influence sleep quality. Studies show that certain herbal teas can help us to unwind, for example German chamomile, lavender, rose, jasmine, and passionflower. This is due to their rich polyphenol content and lack of caffeine.”
Ingredients used by B.Fresh include tart cherry to increase the bioavailability and efficiency of the amino acid, tryptophan, whilst increasing the body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which regulates the body’s circadian rhythm.
The drink also contains kiwi as a source of serotonin and antioxidants, both of which increase sleep efficiency, and apple, which is a good source of potassium and vitamin B6 that also aid sleep, says B.Fresh.
The rise and fall of PepsiCo’s Driftwell
Although public interest in sleep health is growing, there have been some high-profile sleep product failures.
In late 2020, PepsiCo launched Driftwell, a nootropic, still, flavoured water. Driftwell contained 40 mg of magnesium (magnesium has an approved EU health claim for reducing tiredness and fatigue) and 200 mg of L-theanine per can.
PepsiCo said the product was designed with relaxation in mind; used “soothing flavours” (blackberry and lavender); and was a whole new way to cap off their day. However, the product has been quietly discontinued.
According to market analysts at New Nutrition Business (NNB), which studied online customer reviews of Driftwell, the product had two key challenges: bad taste and a lack of “feel the benefit” appeal. Delivering on both these attributes is crucial if brands want to succeed in the tricky space that NNB calls “mood and mind” – an area in which failure is more common than success, it warned.
Combine science-based NPD with education on sleep hygiene
To maximise the chances of consumers feeling the benefit of the functional ingredients, Ruxton said manufacturers should use only science-backed ingredients.
“While there is more public interest nowadays in sleep, I think [new product development] NPD should be evidence-based and provide data to show that the products actually work.”
She also advised that brands launching sleep-aid products communicate to consumers about the importance of sleep hygiene and lifestyle in getting a good night’s sleep.
“Even the most effective products will be a waste of money if combined with late night tech use, stress, or alcohol, which are known factors for disrupting sleep,” she said.