Everyone from athletes to the elderly is clamouring for brain-enhancing supplements and food ingredients – but the evidence for most of them remains thin. Here we look at some of the most promising nootropics on the market.
Ingredients for enhancing brain health – known as nootropics – have been around for years, but recently have seen a surge in interest as consumers have started looking for health benefits beyond physical health from foods, drinks and supplements. Many nootropic products promise to improve memory or concentration, or even to stave off age-related cognitive decline.
Among the trendiest ingredients right now are pre- and probiotics, as researchers have begun to uncover links between the gut microbiota and disease risk well beyond digestive health. Emerging evidence suggests that even mood and brain structure could be related to the bacterial composition of the gut.
Researchers at Chr Hansen, for instance, have started to examine this link, and are looking at the effects of various existing probiotic strains on mental health, including for stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, prebiotic fibre ingredients, such as chicory root fibre, inulin and resistant starch, also have piqued interest for their potential brain benefits stemming from improved gut health, although researchers have yet to pin down a cause-and-effect relationship between fibre consumption and improved cognition.
Some other ingredients to have shown promise in early stage research include those high in antioxidants, like polyphenols from certain berries. Diana Foods, for example, supplies an ingredient that combines polyphenols from blueberries and grapes to “outsmart brain ageing”. Pine bark extract, sold under the brand names Pycnogenol and Enzogenol, has also been researched for its potential to improve cognitive function, for mental clarity in adults and to improve the symptoms of ADHD in children. However, further research is needed to prove its efficacy.
Likewise, lion’s mane mushrooms have gained a huge amount of interest in the past couple of years, and have been studied for their potential in improving nerve health, cognitive function and for producing anti-fatigue effects. But so far, most experiments have been in mice models, the results of which cannot reliably be applied to humans.
The antioxidants in cocoa – known as flavanols – have been in the spotlight for their brain health potential for a number of years, as dark chocolate makers aim to add another healthy positioning to their repertoire. The strength of the evidence for their efficacy is arguably stronger than for many other ingredients, especially as chocolate and cocoa supplier Barry Callebaut has secured an EFSA health claim linking cocoa to blood flow, a factor that could be highlighted in products intended for cognitive health maintenance.
For manufacturers looking to introduce a brain health product to the market, the delivery format may be just as important as the ingredients themselves. For a food or beverage, taste is a primary consideration, and while beverages are often easier to formulate than foods, many nootropic drink makers stumble in developing a truly healthy product that is not high in caffeine or sugar.
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