Michelle Teodoro
Michelle is Mintel's Senior Food Science and Nutrition Analyst based in Singapore. She specialises in food science and ingredients, with a focus on nutrition.

Consumer attention to health and wellness is not a new phenomenon. However, COVID-19 and the challenges that have arisen with it have accelerated the focus on holistic wellbeing. People are becoming more aware of the importance of staying physically and mentally healthy to cope with the heightened stress and anxiety levels in this new normal.

In particular, brain health, emotional wellbeing, and stress management and reduction are growing priorities for consumers globally, across all ages and genders, as they gravitate to a more holistic approach to wellness. In South Korea, two-thirds of adult internet users are actively looking for ways to reduce stress, and similarly, in the US, more than two in five consumers are putting a higher priority on mental wellbeing.

At the same time, the link between sleep, relaxation, and stress has been recognised by consumers, with more than two in five of US adults attributing a lack of sleep to stress levels.

Consumers recognise the connection between nutrition and stress

As part of the new holistic health paradigm, there has been a shift in consumer focus from treatment to prevention. More people adopt lifestyle habits such as exercise and meditation and actively seek solutions for desired outcomes.

Backed by growing scientific evidence that diet is as important to mental well-being as it is to physical health, consumers turn to nutrition to support stress management and help improve sleep and concentration. In fact, more than two in five people in the UK aged 25-34 would like their diet to improve their mood, while more than half of consumers in the US have either tried or are interested in functional food and drink that can aid sleep, is calming or helps with relaxation.

While busy modern lifestyles are often at odds with consumers’ aspirations to eat healthily, the rising knowledge of the benefits of balanced diets has seen people proactively seek everyday nutrition solutions for their overall wellbeing, rather than conventional drugs and pills. Several food categories have been proven to be beneficial to consumers’ mental health. Still, an area gaining interest is the relationship between dietary habits, the gut microbiome, and brain function.

Recent research has provided strong evidence for the gut microbiome’s role in supporting brain performance and reducing inflammation and signs of stress, with diet being cited as one of the most integral factors. This presents a new market opportunity for nutrient-rich ingredients that have been proven to positively impact the body’s gut-brain axis as consumer understanding grows.

Drive new product development with a focus on stress management and cognitive performance

With stress management coming to the forefront, food and beverage manufacturers are unique to capture consumer demand by tapping into their needs around cognitive performance and mood enhancement.

In this regard, dairy food and beverages can be positioned as functional solutions not only for physical but also all facets of cognitive wellness throughout the lifespan.

Cognitive wellness has been under-explored in the global dairy category, with functional claims appearing on less than 12% of product launches and less than 1% carrying brain and nervous system-related claims. However, there is emerging scientific evidence showing certain dairy ingredients’ ability to improve mood and overall mental wellbeing.

Certain probiotics may help to manage some common mental wellness conditions. Specifically, consumption of dairy-derived probiotic strains (including Fonterra’s Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus HN001 (LactoB HN001TM) were found to support the management of depression and anxiety in women after giving birth .

Also, other components of dairy may support stress management in adults. Phospholipids, fundamental building blocks in our brains, decline as we age, potentially impacting cognitive functions such as mental energy, focus, and concentration. Digested dietary milk phospholipids can supplement this decline and have been shown to help manage the effects of stress by supporting mental performance to stay focused and positive .

As its benefits become more widely known, dairy can be a differentiating point for brands targeting consumers’ desire for natural, science-backed ingredients that support mental wellness.

By highlighting such health benefit areas, the category will also expand its target market and appeal to a larger audience. While existing products are aimed at adults to support healthy and active ageing, dairy companies could consider teenagers who may need additional help dealing with daily stress and to support brain development.

Snacking: An emerging category of growth

The functional snack sector was one of the fastest-growing prior to COVID-19, and the resulting shift in consumer preferences observed over the past year is expected to continue to drive this upward trajectory.

The pandemic has disrupted consumer snacking habits, with at-home snacking enjoying a rapid increase in popularity and out-of-home occasions, including impulse and on-the-go consumption, being eliminated from daily routines.

 

In addition to satiating hunger and cravings, consumers are now increasingly looking towards snacks to help them manage stress and its effects on their mental wellbeing. Pre-COVID-19, snack bars were a popular option for consumers on-the-go. With life moving to the new normal, they continue to provide comfort, with more than half of snackers in the UK saying it gives them an opportunity to take a break from responsibilities.

 

While botanicals, vitamins, and minerals currently lead the healthy snacking segment, dairy ingredients have a role to play as people look for recognisable, trustworthy, science-backed, and efficient solutions that are clean label, healthy and indulgent.

Product formulations with a particular focus on mental wellness, for instance, can incorporate dairy with ingredients such as lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, and l-theanine, as well as adaptogens.

However, there is an opportunity to innovate beyond traditional snack bars and yogurts. Ice cream brands have recently sought to advertise fibre content in products and use probiotics to make gut health claims, making these snacks a more attractive option for kids.

In addition, ready-to-drink (RTD) nutritional products also can provide additional benefits beyond weight management and nutrition. Women in the US aged 18-34 are interested in nutrition drinks with anxiety or stress relief formulations, as well as those that can improve sleep. This shows that the connection between stress, mood and sleep is present in consumers’ minds when they look for food and beverages that support their daily lives.

 

What this means for the F&B industry

With consumers showing an increasing propensity to snack during times of stress, and few products launched with stress or sleep functional claims, there is a white space in the market for food and beverage companies to target.

In particular, dairy can form an integral ingredient for new snack products with functional benefits, including stress, cognitive performance, and mood, for all consumers.

While working adults are an obvious target for products with such calming and relaxing properties, dairy can also be beneficial for high school and college students who are coping with daily stresses of academic life such as exams along with other emotional challenges of young adulthood.

Looking ahead

As the world begins to move forward into a new normal, how consumers approach their health will evolve drastically, and some trends are likely here to stay.

The next frontier in food will be anchored in enabling cognitive wellness through natural and scientifically backed solutions. In this setting, there is great potential for manufacturers and brands to build connections between functional ingredients such as dairy and brain health, mental performance, mood or relaxation by highlighting its innate nutrition profile. Specialty ingredients like probiotics and milk phospholipids can also play a greater role in product formulations to capture emerging demand.