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Dairy’s role in stress management
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Dairy’s role in stress management

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Michelle Teodoro

Associate Director – Food Science, Asia Pacific, Mintel

Michelle Teodoro is an industry expert in food and nutrition, with over eight years of experience in the field. Her role entails researching, conducting analysis and providing thought leading insights on key market developments, industry trends and latest consumer demands across a range of food and beverage categories. Michelle is also a regular speaker at industry tradeshows and conferences.

She holds a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Santo Tomas Philippines.

Consumer attention on 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.

Across all ages and genders, brain health, emotional wellbeing, stress management and reduction are growing priorities for consumers globally.

In South Korea, 66% of adult internet users are actively looking for ways to reduce stress.

In the US, 45% of 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 43% 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 are adopting lifestyle habits such as exercise and meditation and actively seek solutions for desired outcomes. 

Over 50% of US consumers have tried or are interested in functional food and drink that can aid sleep, is calming or helps with relaxation. 

Backed by growing scientific evidence that diet is as important to mental wellbeing as it is to physical health, consumers turn to nutrition to support stress management and help improve sleep and concentration. In fact, 42% of people in the UK aged 25-34 would like their diet to improve their mood.

While busy modern lifestyles are often at odds with consumers’ aspirations to eat healthily, knowledge towards the benefits of balanced diets has grown. People are proactively seeking 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[1]​, with diet being cited as one of the most integral factors.​ 

As consumer understanding towards this relationship grows, nutrient-rich ingredients that have been proven to positively impact the body’s gut-brain axis will be able to capture emerging demand.

Invest in products targeting stress management and cognitive performance

With stress management becoming a global focus, food and beverage manufacturers are in a unique position to capture consumer demand by tapping into their needs around cognitive performance and mood enhancement.

In Mintel’s opinion, dairy foods 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, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database. Furthermore, less than 1% are carrying brain and nervous system-related claims. This is despite 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.

Consumption of dairy-derived probiotic strains (including Fonterra’s Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001) were found to support the management of depression and anxiety in women after giving birth[2]​.

Also, other components of dairy may support stress management in adults. Phospholipids are the fundamental building blocks in our brains and they 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[3]​.

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 be able to 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 and working adults who may need additional help dealing with daily stress and to support brain development.

Snacking is shifting from “on-the-go” to “in-the-house”

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, diminishing 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 56% 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 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 yoghurts. 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 all ages.

In addition, ready-to-drink (RTD) nutritional products can also 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 there currently being few products launched with stress or sleep functional claims, there is a 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 functional ingredients like probiotics and milk phospholipids can also play a more significant role in product formulations to capture emerging demand.

The article is based on insights and data provided by the world’s leading market intelligence firm Mintel. For more information, please visit

[1]​ Deans, E. (2017). Microbiome and mental health in the modern environment. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 36: 1.

[2]​ Slykerman, R. F., et al. (2017). Effect of Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 in Pregnancy on Postpartum Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Randomised Double-blind Placebo-controlled Trial. EBioMedicine, 24, 159–165.

[3]​Benton, D., Donohoe, R. T., Sillance, B., & Nabb, S. (2001). The Influence of Phosphatidylserine Supplementation on Mood and Heart Rate when Faced with an Acute Stressor. Nutritional Neuroscience, 4(3); 169-78.