During the COVID-19 pandemic, emotional and mental health conditions have become more prevalent. Consumers, whether COVID patients or not, have spent prolonged periods of time in quarantine or self-isolation and social distancing, which consequently led to increased psychological, and also physical, distress. Moreover, the current economic uncertainty aggravates the situation.
Consumers are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, which in turn affects their sleeping patterns and mood. This is a vicious cycle that might also have an impact on other health conditions such as depression. Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that, by 2030, depression would be one of the leading causes of illness in the world. Thus, the consequences of the pandemic on mental health will be felt for years to come.
The role of the nutraceutical industry
Apart from turning the healthcare system upside down, the pandemic is also challenging consumers' awareness for their wellbeing including their mental health. Consumers understand the value of prevention and are looking for self-care alternatives via nutrition and food supplements to improve their mental health, be it for better sleep or to de-stress and/or enhance their mood.
Therefore, amongst the top-selling supplement products are the categories supporting sleep and stress resistance containing ingredients like melatonin, magnesium, and cannabidiol (CBD) next to other botanicals and probiotics.
An interesting ingredient to keep a close watch on is L-theanine, an amino acid found in tea leaves that offers a calming effect although according to Mintel, still a bit a niche in global food and drink product launches.
When it comes to botanicals, saffron and lemon balm are known for their contribution to relaxation, maintenance of a positive mood, and restful sleep.
The use of adaptogenic herbal extracts (e.g. Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Holy basil, Schisandra), well known in traditional ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for combating the mental and physical effects of stress in a more holistic way, are also on the rise. An example is Ashwagandha which has the potential to move from supplements into functional beverages for stress relief. Adaptogens are also trending in dairy with increased interest in holistic well-being offerings throughout the nutritional products sphere.
Nootropics, too, are gaining in relevance, and again, CBD benefits from high familiarity among consumers. According to Innova market insights, CBD is recognized by consumers for its benefits in “reducing anxiety/stress” and “promoting relaxation”.
Consumers are also showing an increased interest in digital solutions such as wearables and personalized solutions (e.g. myAir, nutritional solution for better management of stress) as well as convenient delivery formats such as snacks and drinks to address their mental wellbeing.
The bottom line, consumers are driving the demand for products that support their mental health.
The importance of clinical research
Clinical research remains essential for the scientific substantiation of claims, in particular for novel claims and consumers’ brand trust. As a consequence, strong consumer healthcare brands continue to invest in clinically validated innovation. New studies can ultimately lead to novel approved EFSA claims, but they can also be used in many other ways in the communication of brands and the benefits of products.
Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has created tremendous challenges within the clinical research landscape. Clinical research organizations (CROs), but also regulatory bodies, have to adapt quickly. Digitalization within clinical research was already a topic, but the pandemic has massively accelerated its need. Modern CROs such as a&r have invested to develop their digital skills to execute clinical studies with state-of-the-art e-tools.
During the time of COVID-19, we at a&r could demonstrate that subject recruitment and retention rates work very well with easy-to-use electronic diaries. Limitations in the number of life doctor visits are likewise appreciated by sponsors and study participants. As a side effect of fewer on-site visits, study costs can be reduced and therefore clinical research can become affordable for smaller and emerging brands.
Dr Inês Rocha will be speaking at the roundtable discussion on Stress, Sleep and COVID-19 at Vitafoods Insights Virtual Expo, 10 May.