Drink [coffee] to your mental health!

Covid-19 has made consumers aware that wellness is a critical concern. Many consumers are looking for healthy ways to combat stress, anxiety and depression by way of food and beverage items, with functional coffees being one of the most popular. Through new formulations and emotionally appealing multi-sensory products, coffee brands can appeal to new consumers while differentiating themselves in the increasingly competitive world of mental and emotional health products. By Dominique Huret.

The Covid-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on all of us. Our daily life has been upside down, routines shacked up and most of us noticed our spirit and moods affected. It is not surprising that in these challenging times, we cling to our daily treats and a cup of Joe has never been so important.

“In this ‘new normal’ period, one of the four key functionalities for coffee consumer is the search for mental wellbeing rather than immunity booster. The pandemic is a major additional burden on global mental health,” wrote Matthew Barry, senior beverages consultant with London-based global market intelligence firm, Euromonitor International, in a 2021 calming beverages report. “Calming as a functionality is surging in importance, as consumer stress levels have been rising significantly around the world. Yet the rates of caffeine consumption are rising, and consumers show little willingness to cut back, despite some negative health consequence related to caffeine.” To deal with this side effects, he said consumers will want to blend their caffeine with something calming whether in a single beverage or to be consumed later in the day when caffeine consumption is used to relax or promote good sleep. “R&D in calming beverages remain a critical area of innovation, with a focus on anxiety-relieving beverages.”

With the pandemic still surging, consumers are looking for ways to aid mental wellbeing as much as physical wellbeing. As such, the popularity of functional coffee continues to grow.

But the equation of coffee and mental health is far from simple. Dr Géraldine Coppin, a senior researcher and lecturer in affective psychology at the University of Geneva and at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, noted, “While a large body of research has reviewed the physiological effects of coffee consumption, only few studies have considered the potential relationships between coffee consumption, mood and emotion. Although the effect of coffee intake on mood and emotion is difficult to study, as coffee drinking is part of an ingrained daily ritual for many, there is convincing evidence that a moderate intake of coffee improves alertness and attention and is associated with increased feelings of pleasantness and reduced feelings of anxiety.”

She said that when studying the effects of coffee, researchers must be conscious of the fact that disrupting the daily routine, particularly at the start of the day, may affect mood and emotion, irrespective of coffee consumption’s physiological effects. Likewise, the expectation of consuming caffeine has been shown to affect mood and emotion, even if no caffeine has actually been drunk. “The mechanisms behind the observed effects are likely to include a role for caffeine but also for other compounds present in coffee, including polyphenols, although further research is required in this area,” said Dr Coppin.

Mushroom coffee has many added benefits but consumer awareness is low.

Another scientific advocate of coffee intake and reduced risk of depression is Dr Giuseppe Grosso, a research fellow at the Integrated Cancer Registry, Azienda Ospedaliera Universitaria Policlinico Vittorio Emanuele, Italy, and a senior collaborator at NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health, St John’s Innovation Centre, Cambridge, England. In a 2016 report for ISIC (Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee) “Coffee, tea, caffeine and risk of depression: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of observational studies” (Mol Nut Food Res, 60(1):223–2), he stated, “We have researched on the impact of coffee and caffeine consumption on the particular health condition depression. While current research of an association is limited, a systematic review of observational studies does suggest that the risk of developing depression decreases with moderate intake of coffee (equivalent to approximately three to five cups a day).”

Furthermore, the effect of coffee may be modulated by compounds in coffee other than caffeine. Dr Grosso explained that other mechanisms may also be associated with a reduced risk of depression. “Dopamine, for example, is a neurotransmitter that helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and also helps to regulate emotion.”

Exploring added functionalities

All very well but rather than mitigating or removing caffeine from their brew, today, consumers are looking at additional functionalities. What is proven scientifically is that one of the best-known active compounds of coffee is caffeine. A mild central nervous stimulant, this substance is associated with increased alertness. Following the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a cause-and-effect relationship has been established between a 75mg serving of caffeine and both increased attention and alertness. Several robust studies are in progress, as health allegations are very arduous to prove. Currently, there are several popular functional coffees on the market.

Bullet coffee is coffee with added MCT oil grass-fed butter or ghee. It has gained popularity through claims that it gives long-lasting energy, boosts concentration and keeps you satisfied longer. Because of the fats or oils in it, it is much higher in calories than a simple cup of coffee, which could increase the energy level. The combined ingredients take longer to digest in the body, giving then a feeling of being fuller for longer. At the present one finds limited supports for the claim that it provides long lasting energy, boosts concentration or appetite suppressant. More research is needed in this area. But fats such as coconut oil and butter are rich in saturated fatty acids, which the body converts into cholesterol. This is opposite to the dietary guidelines advising a move towards unsaturated fats.

Vitamin Coffee claims to naturally support sustained energy, muscle repair, bone health and better moods, among other benefits.

Mushroom coffee is a blend of ground coffee with powdered fungus. It claims to have half the amount of caffeine and double the effects of coffee. What is demonstrated is that mushrooms provide a range of nutrients including potassium and selenium. It is supposed to increase alertness and boost immunity and cardiovascular function. Some experts suggest it may be the caffeine in the coffee that gives the energy boosting effect, and not mushroom extract.

When compared with roasted, green coffee beans have limited aroma and flavour. However, experts suggest the unroasted beans can aid numerous health conditions, primarily due to the presence of chlorogenic acids. These might have a positive effect on glucose and lipid metabolism cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Found in both green and roasted coffee beans, the levels of antioxidants are higher in green coffee.

Natural functional ingredients

When looking at innovative ingredients and adaptogens, we are entering troubled waters. What exactly are adaptogens? A buzzword in the wellness world, they are popping up everywhere but still no industry formal definition on what they are. They can be classified as nontoxic herbal pharmaceuticals, which claim to help us better cope with (or increase our resistance to) mental or physical stress, improve physical and mental performance, and possibly support the immune system.

“These herbs and roots have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions, but they’re having a renaissance today. Each one claims to do something a little different, but overall adaptogens help your body handle stress. They’re meant to bring us back to the middle,” said Dr Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, in a 2018 article by Jamie Ducharme in Time magazine, “What Are Adaptogens and Why Are People Taking Them?”

Turmeric, for example, is the latest super food – or super spice – that is being added to a variety of items, including coffee. It has been used in India for thousands of years as both a spice and medicinal herb. Science has started to back up traditional claims that turmeric contains compounds called curcuminoids that have medicinal properties. The most important curcuminoid is curcumin, which is the main active ingredient in turmeric. It has powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a strong antioxidant. Turmeric has reportedly shown promise in treating a variety of ailments ranging from arthritis to psoriasis to Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng and winter cherry, is an ancient medicinal herb claiming multiple health benefits as an anxiety and stress reliever, fighting depression, and boosting fertility and testosterone in men. It comes in a powder and one to two teaspoons can be added into a daily coffee.

Cardamom has also been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. A spice commonly added to coffee (in the powder form) in the Middle East, cardamom gives coffee a spiced flavour similar to ginger (they’re in the same family) and is packed with nutrients. A two-tablespoon serving has just 36 calories, is loaded with fiber, essential minerals, and claims to be cancer-fighting.

Rhodiola is a herb that grows in the cold, mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. The functional ingredients come from its roots. It claims to stimulate cognitive functions in situations of stress, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.

Peet’s Coffee ‘golden lattes’ – espresso-blended beverages with turmeric – launched in 2021 in both hot and cold.

Holy basil is commonly known in the Hindi language as Tulsi. A quite revered medicinal herb, Holy basil is a plant that has violet flowers and blossoms. Medicinal preparations are made from the leaves, stems, and seeds of the plant. Holy basil is often used for cooking Thai dishes and its spicy flavour has influenced the common name “hot basil.” Some advocates say that adding it to coffee reduces any jitters often associated with caffeine and removes the edge from caffeine. With milk, it almost has sort of a chai-like vibe.

Elderberry is a fruit that grows in small clusters and is of deep purple colour. It is packed with antioxidants and many vitamins, which is partly why it is so popular and desired as a health supplement. It claims to aid in inflammation and depression, but immunity booster is its most common use.

L-theanine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in tea leaves and is used in Asian medicine to treat medical and mental health problems. L-theanine is supposed to increase brain levels of serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. Promising studies talk of beneficial effects on memory, learning, and cognitive function as well as for treatment of OCD, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, and schizophrenia. Pure green tea contains both caffeine and L-theanine, but L-theanine can be added in usual coffee as a supplement, according to “L-Theanine for Different Mental Health Problems,” by James Lake, MD (Integrative Mental Health Care in Psychology Today, August 2019).

Finally, in the United States in particular, CDB (cannabidiol) extracts in coffee are taking an increasing share of the supplement for functional coffee. “We’re seeing new and exciting trends in the CBD space, which we’re fortunate to be able to react to quickly. With a sharp focus on wellbeing seen around the world, an increasing number of people are looking for new and innovative products with ingredients they know and trust,” said Mark Elfenbein, chief revenue officer of Austin, Texas-based ingredient supplier, Socati, a wholly owned subsidiary of Yooma Wellness Inc.

With new formulations, Socati is already working with several leading consumer brands to create new and unique products which will soon be available to customers. “But, today in the spotlight for mental health benefit is CBG, or cannabigerol,” said Elfenbein. “This is a minor cannabinoid since its cannabis availability is typically at very low levels — usually less than one per cent. But it plays a significant part as a precursor to other cannabinoids, CBG has popularly earned the name ‘mother of cannabinoids’.”

Bulletproof pioneered ‘bullet coffee’ – coffee with MCT oil, grass-fed butter or ghee – claiming it boosts energy and concentration.

If CBG research is still in its early stages when it comes to mental health issues, there is already some medical support for the usage of CBG oil for certain mental disorders. For those who don’t seek any treatment, CBG could provide them with some anxiety relief. Effects might or might not be like the effects of prescription medications, but CBG has none of the addictive and dangerous side-effects commonly associated. CBG can help with heart conditions, high blood pressure, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. These health allegations still need more scientific evidence but the US CDB industry is expecting FDA to rule on the topic this year.

“The global pandemic has made consumers aware that wellness is a vital concern. In the coming years, consumers will be looking for more products and services that offer mental and emotional health benefits,” said Alex Beckett, global food and drink analyst with London-based global market intelligence firm, Mintel, adding that new formulations and emotionally appealing multi-sensory products will allow food and beverage brands to differentiate themselves in the competitive world of mental and emotional health products. “We anticipate that innovative food and beverage formulations will help consumers learn how food can impact their mental and emotional health, sparking new interest in psychologically-based approaches to healthy eating.”

  • Dominique Huret has been a journalist in the beverage and packaging sectors since 2005. She writes in French, English and Dutch for several press groups. She is the co-founder of Cape Decision consultancy based in Brussels, Belgium. She can be reached at [email protected].

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