Dr Manfred Eggersdorfer is professor for Healthy Ageing at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands. Before, he held positions in industry at DSM, Roche Vitamins and BASF. He is the author of numerous publications on vitamins, innovation in nutritional ingredients and renewable resources. We spoke with Manfred about key nutrients that our brain needs, and what manufacturers can do to address mental wellness in their formulations. Manfred will be speaking on this topic at Vitafoods Europe.
Q. Consumers might know that the body needs vitamins and trace minerals, but they wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell you what these do! When it comes to the brain, what roles do essential nutrients actually perform?
A. The brain is the most complicated organ of our body. While the brain represents just 2 % of a person's total body weight, it accounts for 20 % of the body's energy consumption! The brain works through complex chemical changes. These reactions and changes modulate a variety of activities: body functions, memory, feelings, including our mood. Essential nutrients - vitamins and minerals, and a number of other nutrients like carotenoids, polyunsaturated fatty acids and other bioactives - are required for functioning and optimal performance. Interesting in this context is that some nutrients, for example vitamin C, are found in higher concentrations in the brain, compared to other organs and blood.
Q. The link between cognitive performance and nutrition has been well documented, but I wonder if you could perhaps highlight any interesting recent research that has helped to shine even more light on this connection?
A. Individual nutrients, such as vitamins, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), carotenoids, flavonoids and specific trace minerals play an important role in the enhancement of cognitive performance among healthy people. There are three recent developments there that I would like to highlight.
The first is vitamin D and brain health. New research has found that vitamin D deficiency affects a type of brain ‘scaffolding’ that supports the neurons. Scans of the brain have shown a reduction in these so-called perineuronal nets in the hippocampus — the brain area that is key for memory formation. These nets form a strong, supportive mesh around certain neurons, and in doing so, they stabilise the contacts these cells make with other neurons. It is hypothesised that vitamin D supplementation may be useful, for example in improving symptoms of mood disorders.
Second, the human brain shrinks through ageing, which impacts cognitive function and memory. A number of human studies show that an optimal supply with B-vitamins, vitamin B6, folate, and vitamin B12 together with omega-3 fatty acids can reduce cognitive decline and support cognitive performance.
Finally, we know that vitamin C is a nutrient of great importance for the proper functioning of our nervous system. Its main role in the brain is its participation in antioxidant defence. In addition, it is involved in numerous non-oxidant processes like biosynthesis of collagen, carnitine, tyrosine and peptide hormones as well as of myelin. New scientific results have also shown a potential crucial role in neurotransmission and neuronal maturation and functions.
Q. How might such emerging new research into cognitive performance and nutrition be able to drive new innovation opportunities?
A. Studies in brain health are now faster and more effective because of the progress made in brain imaging. This can aid our understanding of the eye-brain axis, and the gut-brain axis in the role and function of specific nutrients. Nutrition studies using imaging techniques can demonstrate the effect on specific nutrients, or even the combination of nutrients on nutritional markers in the brain. This could allow for the development of nutritional solutions that combine a number of nutrients. It is not about the benefit of a single nutrient for brain health anymore; innovation is being driven by nutrient combinations.
Q. In which product categories are you seeing a strong link between cutting edge science and nutritional solutions? Where do you see untapped opportunities?
A. I see progress in cutting edge science in the understanding of the eye-brain axis. We understand more and more about how, for example, specific carotenoids work in the eye and contribute to brain performance, and the delay of memory decline at older age.
Untapped opportunities include the role and interaction of a healthy microbiome for and with the brain. Manufacturers should also think about the benefits for immunity, satiety, anxiety. This opens new opportunities for nutritional solutions combining probiotics, vitamins, omega-3-polyunsatured fatty acids, isoflavones and other bioactives.
Q. What advice would you give to manufacturers looking to include ingredients to target mental wellness in their formulations; what should they bear in mind when selecting ingredients?
A. My advice here would go in two directions. First, invest in science and scientific networks. Scientific results are the basis for regulatory approvals, for communication with consumers and for the acceptance of new nutritional solutions. Second, invest in formulation and application competences. Many ingredients have a low bioavailability and formulation is key for efficacy.
Q. How do you see this category evolving over the next few years, in terms of more manufacturers getting on board, consumer perceptions changing, new scientific discoveries etc.?
A. Mood, anxiety, mental wellness and cognitive performance affect the wellbeing of people. Cognitive performance and mental well-being are essential for our overall health and are a prerequisite to work productively, to enjoy life and contribute to social interaction. This category is in my view a key area of interest for consumers. We currently have immunity as a top health concern, but I think that cognitive performance will be a fast-growing health segment in the coming period. Scientific discoveries will pave the way for new nutritional solutions and attract more manufacturers.