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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Isn't all food brain food?

Phospholipids? Sounds like something measured in a blood test. A marker of cardiovascular health. A number that should be - cross your fingers - low. The "phospho" root prefix got me thinking, though, that maybe it's something you want more of. A mineral and a fat. Maybe a nutrient that lubricates the synapses.

According to a food ingredient supplier promoting them in a recent Food Dive article, milk phospholipids are brain food. Phospholipids naturally occur in milk fat and apparently have been shown to help people manage stress response, stay positive, and stay focused, if consumed on a regular basis.

Milk phospholipids are an example of the latest functional ingredients food developers can work into food and beverage formulas so that these products do more than fill you up or slake your thirst. Nootropics: substances that are supposed to improve cognitive function. "Smart drugs" to enhance memory, creativity, and motivation.

Nootropics are turning up everywhere, from the supplement section to the beverage aisle. During some recent work I came across a new chocolate bar brand called Eat Gold that features adaptogens (active stress relievers) and nootropics. Eating the Create Magic variety is meant to pump up your power to produce, with the help of matcha powder, lion's mane, and citicoline. Eat Gold is promising treasure; decadence and genius in a tin foil-wrapped tablet.

But hasn't brain food been around for a while?

We were told growing up that fish is brain food, this before fish oils, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, were identified, at least in the popular press, as the reason we should not pinch our noses in the presence of a plate of fish. Most fish is just too fishy for Americans, though, so we're happy to ingest capsules of fish oil instead.

But you don't have take a pill to feed your brain. I've read that cooked food is brain food, in a way. Richard Wrangham, in his book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, makes a pretty compelling case that our brains grew disproportionately after we tamed fire enough to build the first, crude ovens. Cooked food contains more calories and brains burn through calories more than any other organ in our body. Heat denatures protein and gelatinizes carbohydrates which softens up food and releases energy locked in raw food. Dr. Wrangham points to how Homo Sapiens mouth openings and teeth are comparatively smaller than those of other primates. And our jaws are not nearly as strong. All the more to chew on softer food softened by cooking. Our lower intestines are only half the size you'd expect given our size because humans don't have to break down the tough, uncooked vegetation gorillas do, for example. According to Dr. Wrangham, we spend only 5% of our day chewing whereas great apes spend 15%. Time freed up to develop our brains to do all sorts of other stuff.

The pursuit of particularly delicious food is the hallmark of an animal brain with higher cognitive skills, according to Rob Dunn, professor in the Applied Ecology department at NC State. I listened to a fascinating virtual lecture by Dr. Dunn promoting a new book he's co-authored with Monica Sanchez called Delicious - the evolution of flavor and how it made us human. He explained how chimpanzees use tools to patiently harvest foods they seem to relish, like honey, nuts, algae, and termites. Chimps snack on easy-to-get food they need for some nourishment, but over evolutionary time, they have learned to fashion sticks to fish ants out of mounds, beat honeybee nests, and dip for water, and are willing to take the time and extra effort for delicious stuff. Our cognitive skills evolved, and sharpened, like that of our primate cousins, to devise ways to get at food that our senses confirmed gave us pleasure. Tasty food is sort then of brain food too.

I might argue that almost everything we eat is brain food. Ask any of the one billion people enduring the final dog days of the fasting month right now. No food or drink can pass your lips between dawn and dusk for twenty-eight days. An hour or two before breaking the fast, especially when Ramadan crawls through the longest days of the summer, there is no question that you are not quite yourself. All of your body's cells start to crave replenishment, sending urgent messages up and down your spine, but it's the brain cells that are worst off. You want to shake off a headache, or break the spell of a bad mood, or marshal your scattered focus, and you can't. On top of that, there's sort of an addiction to eating throughout the day, in daylight, whatever your routine is. That habit gets broken during the fasting month. You, this fasting soul are left tapping fingers and toes in anticipation of sustenance, and the return to a semblance of yourself. Whatever passes your lips a few minutes after the sun sets is brain food. The first few spoonfuls of a hearty soup splashing through your mouth and gullet bring a smile and a warm head rush before the food reaches your stomach.

Almost anything can be brain food, but the prospect of a fabricated, concentrated super food or ingredient that makes you smarter, that maybe gives you an edge, is tantalizing to consumers and food makers.

The Food Dive article cites research showing that the global functional food market was valued at $173 billion in 2019 and is expected to get to $309 billion by 2027. According to Google trends, 'brain food' searches have grown by more than 300% in 2020 compared with 2019.

The drumbeat driving brain food is thrumming louder. This week Pepsico launched a sparkling water with functional ingredients called Soulboost. What a heady promise. The Blueberry Pomegranate variety is said to improve mental stamina with the help of 200 mg of panax ginseng. The Coca-Cola company cannot be far behind.

Back to the white paper on phospholipids. A key selling point is that this ingredient can be mixed into a range of foods, like dough and granola bars because it doesn't spoil the taste the way other functional ingredients can. A stealth ingredient to trick our palates and minds.

Phospholipids and other neutral-tasting functional ingredients serve our need to stay on top of our game. We have also developed, I think, a need to course-correct ourselves every so often with, say, a daily cup of coffee or probiotic yogurt, so a fair number of us will reach for a boosted sparkling water or smart energy bar.

In addition to the phospholipid nootropic, though, consider the proverbial warm glass of milk from which it is derived. And a homespun, wholesome, whole food peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwich on oat nut whole grain bread to go along with it. I made these brain food sandwiches for my kids this week to help them outlast their marathon exams. To master Calculus, Biology, and Human Geography, for those three hours anyway.

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