IT'S PROBABLY THE MOST LITERAL DEFINITION of Food for Thought a retailer will ever hear. But no matter how it's expressed, the phrase explains the high level of consumer interest in supplements that enhance mental health and acuity. This segment of the $3 billion supermarket/mass market supplement category is largely targeted toward, and purchased by, Baby Boomers 50 and over. They want to fend off

IT'S PROBABLY THE MOST LITERAL DEFINITION of “Food for Thought” a retailer will ever hear. But no matter how it's expressed, the phrase explains the high level of consumer interest in supplements that enhance mental health and acuity.

This segment of the $3 billion supermarket/mass market supplement category is largely targeted toward, and purchased by, Baby Boomers 50 and over. They want to fend off age-related declines with products such as ginseng, ginkgo biloba, huperzine A, aceltylcholine and the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA.

But other consumer groups are also showing interest. One of the most promising is made up of younger adults who want a “brain boost” to help them handle stress, maintain energy and improve memory. A recent report from researcher Frost & Sullivan predicted that more manufacturers will begin going after the 30-plus market, primarily with herbal products such as ginseng for energy and St. John's Wort for mood improvement.

Meanwhile, the Natural Marketing Institute's 2006 Health & Wellness Trends database suggests that adults as young as 18 could be a target for brain-boosting supplements. Among consumers 18 to 29 years old, 4% of those surveyed indicated they used condition-specific supplements for brain/memory in 2006, a rate that is a bit lower than the general population but not much so, according to Greg Stephens, NMI's vice president of strategic consulting. Of the group with the highest usage (those age 65-plus), the number was 6%.

Younger consumers are apparently thinking ahead, and taking steps now in order to protect their mental acuity in the future. Fifty-two percent of consumers ages 18 to 29 said they were a little or a lot concerned about preventing memory/concentration problems, compared with 41% who said they were not concerned at all. Part of the motivation might be found in the home, where 11% of total households in 2006 said they or a household member were actively managing memory issues, according to NMI.

Still, the aging Baby Boomers remain by far the prime target. “People 50-plus want to know how to stay physically sharp as they age,” said Loren Israelsen, executive director of the United Natural Products Alliance, a trade organization representing dietary supplement companies. “The demographic bubble is moving to the right, and anyone over 50 is going to begin to experience forgetfulness.”

The demographics of a store's neighborhood determine the success of the mental health category and various subcategories within it, said Roxanne Green, health and beauty aids coordinator at a unit of PCC Natural Markets, an eight-store chain in the Seattle area. She pointed out that PCC's suburban stores, such as her location in Redmond, have seen growth in mental acuity supplements, since many of their shoppers are Baby Boomers. A location near the University of Washington, on the other hand, is more likely to see students coming in for a pre-exam study enhancer.

In Green's store, customers in their 50s have family members who are suffering from Alzheimer's disease or other conditions that lead to declines in mental acuity, and are taking steps to prevent the same condition in themselves. She said the top product is ginkgo, which commands the most consumer awareness and tends to come up first when the customer does an Internet search for information.

Nutrition Business Journal states that the mental acuity portion of the specialty supplement category grew 4.7% in 2005 to $239 million, following growth of 9% in 2004. This burst came after four years of declines in the category. The largest share, 33%, is attributable to ginkgo biloba, which declined more than 13% in 2005 but still kept its market share lead over the next largest category, fish and animal oils, which accounted for just under 31% of the market. Sales of fish and animal oils grew more than 28% in 2005, however, marking a possible shift in purchase choices.

Not all observers have witnessed growth in the mental health and acuity segment. John Raiche, national vice president of marketing for United Natural Foods, a distributor of natural products, said supplement buyers at his company see the category as flat. While a number of SKUs did well, particularly those containing ginkgo, that is not true of the category as a whole. Even new products backed by considerable marketing support have failed in the last year, he noted. “Our consensus of opinion is this category is not up-and-coming.”

One threat is the increasing level of competition, both from within the supplement segment and from functional foods containing similar ingredients. “Nutritional Supplements in the U.S.,” a November 2006 report from Packaged Facts, the publishing division of MarketResearch.com, found 10 new supplement products introduced between January and September 2006 that made mental acuity or mood enhancement claims. Meanwhile, research firm Mintel tracked 161 new products, not including pet items, with omega-3 in 2006, including processed fish, meat, eggs, bakery goods, snacks, dairy, spreads, confectionery and cereal.

“The increased number of product offerings is just amazing,” said Alyssa Stang, program manager at Frost & Sullivan, noting that the sheer number of new items has cut into sales. Still, supplements may be in the best position to be marketed as a cost-effective alternative, she believes. “Consumers are asking, ‘What will give me the biggest bang for my buck?’”

A Frost & Sullivan study of products that include omega-3 or omega-6, both of which tout mental acuity as a primary benefit, found that 80% of sales were attributable to supplements, vs. 5% to infant formula and the remainder to functional and pet foods.

In addition, NMI's research shows that, of consumers 18-29 who say they are a little or a lot concerned about memory/concentration loss, 51% would most likely use supplements to prevent such problems, vs. 41% who would most likely use foods or beverages for that purpose.

Israelsen pointed out that not all supplement ingredients are viable for functional foods. He believes omega-3 has a bright future as a food ingredient, for example, but ginkgo is likely to remain primarily a supplement, although some manufacturers have experimented with ginkgo in products such as snack chips. “Supplements are like personal transit, targeting very specific needs, while functional foods are like mass transit,” he said. “A handful of ingredients make their way there, and that's when a mainstream audience finds them.”

Algae Oil Floats to the Top?

Fish oil is one of the best animal sources of omega-3 fatty acids — especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Both promote mental acuity as well as heart health. Consumers are often turned off, though, if the supplement isn't formulated to prevent “fish burps.” Anyone who's taken fish oil knows how distasteful they can be.

A lesser-known alternative is algae oil, which commands a still-small share of market but has been enjoying recent growth.

Marine algae has some advantages over fish oils. For example, it's an option for vegetarians, as well as older people, since EPA is associated with blood thinning. In addition, prices of crude fish oil are on the rise due to decreased production, and that may lead manufacturers to raise wholesale prices. If that happens, algae oil might become a more attractive alternative.

Algae oil is still a small part of the omega-3 market. Frost & Sullivan tracks sales of supplements and foods containing omega-3 by source, including flaxseed, fish oil and algae oil. Algae oil commanded $83 million in revenues in 2006, according to Alyssa Stang, Frost & Sullivan program manager, compared to $220 million for “marine animal oil.” Both are expected to grow at a rate of 10% to 15% annually for the next couple of years, she said.

Roxanne Green, health and beauty aids coordinator at the PCC Natural Markets store in Redmond, Wash., said she carries algae oil products but doesn't sell many, noting that algae oil has nowhere near the recognition fish oil does among mainstream consumers. But as awareness for the product grows, algae oil may start attracting shoppers looking for an alternative source of omega-3s.
— KR


Ten new supplement products that were introduced between January and September 2006 mention mood enhancement or mental focus as a benefit. Among them:

Solgar's L-Theanine Complex Vegetable Capsules Relaxation and mood support
Allmax Nutrition's Razor8 supplement Weight loss, stress reduction and mood enhancement
Dynamic Health Lab's blue-green algae product Vitality, strong bones and teeth, mental clarity, immunity and digestive support, hair, skin and nails
CimiWoman Black Cohosh supplement Menopause, including anxiety and mood changes
Jarrow Formulas' EPA-DHA omega-3 fish oil supplement Cardiovascular and brain function and mood enhancement, among others
Wudel Inc.'s Omega-3 Brain Booster Memory, mood and emotional well-being



  • Aging Baby Boomers are the key market, but other demographic groups, such as students or busy 30-plus adults, show strong potential for certain products.
  • Build mental health sets around ginkgo biloba and omega-3, which have the highest consumer recognition and account for the largest share of sales.
  • Lesser-known ingredients such as algae oil or berry extracts may drive incremental sales in certain stores, depending on customer demographics.
  • Branding, educational literature and advice from knowledgeable staffers help drive purchases.