Bakers Journal

Final Proof: Nourish your noggin

November 1, 2021
By Jane Dummer

Baking for brain health and mental well-being: A look at how nutrient-dense ingredients and they contribute to brain and mental health

Walnuts and matcha are among some of the more popular ingredients that have been linked to healthy brains. Photo courtesy California Walnut Commission

Our mind-body, since the pandemic, has been through a lot. Most of us are aiming to stay positive amid the uncertainties. There’s been a pronounced change in the public conversation surrounding mental health. Plus, as we head into the winter months, consumers are looking for healthy ways to influence their brain and mental health. Certain ingredients like walnuts, matcha and cocoa widely used in baking contain nutrients that have the potential to support both brain and mental health. Let’s take a closer look at these nutrient-dense ingredients and how they contribute to brain and mental health. 

Nuts, like seeds, are powerhouses of energy and nutrients and deserve a mention for brain health. Specifically, walnuts, the top nut for brain health. Carol Sloan RDN, FAND, health research director at the California Walnut Commission, explains: “Brain health and mental well-being are ‘top-of-mind’ for people now, no matter what age. And what we eat is directly related to how we feel! In terms of health attributes, recent research reveals that eating walnuts as part of an overall healthy eating pattern may have cognitive benefits. The Mediterranean Style Eating Pattern as well as the MIND Diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) emphasize green, leafy veggies and other vegetables, seafood, nuts (specifically walnuts), legumes and berries for better cognitive health. California walnuts are the only treenut (of the nine treenuts) that offers an excellent source of the plant-based omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This is an essential fatty acid that must be consumed as it cannot be manufactured by the body and is vital to maintain brain health.”

Sloan identifies adding walnuts to baked goods boosts nutrients that promote good health. “The MIND diet and the Mediterranean-style diet pattern showcase a healthier way of eating that can impact cognitive health in a positive way. Delicious recipes that showcase walnuts with these dietary styles include the whole wheat honey flat bread loaded with grilled vegetables and extra virgin olive oil, as well as the mini lemon blueberry walnut muffins referred to as brain bites.”  

Baking options offering a balance between health and indulgence are proving popular, more than ever since the global health crisis. Opportunities to make use of health-forward ingredients like matcha in baking are increasing. Chieko Yamamoto, president and CEO of Ikeda Tea World, Inc. in Huntington Beach, Calif., describes matcha’s properties: “Matcha was first used by Buddhist monks in ancient times for clarity and focus to attain deeper states of meditation. We have found there has been an increased awareness and interest in matcha since the beginning of the pandemic. One factor may be that people are at home more and are looking for natural ways to relax.” 

Matcha has several nutrients, including an amino acid, L-theanine, which is linked to mental alertness, improved cognition and relaxation. It improves the production of dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters that help us feel good. When compared with caffeine, L-theanine often lessens the dramatic crash or “jitters” associated with increased caffeine consumption, creating a more comfortable effect of improved mental alertness and focus. Matcha powder has been used for years by Japanese bakers for its flavour, colour and nutrients. A natural colour with the added boost of mental well-being for your next baked innovation!

Is it true? Chocolate is good for our brains. Yes, it is true! Chocolate lovers can rejoice. But it needs to be the right variety. Think dark chocolate, usually 85 per cent or higher. Plus, not all cocoa powders are created equal and that’s important for bakers to be aware of. Cocoa has a flavonoid called theobromine in it, which can increase alertness and mental energy. Cocoa flavanols are abundant in the fresh cocoa bean. However, most traditional processing of cocoa-fermentation, roasting and alkalization destroys these flavanols. Therefore, it’s important for the baker to look for a high-flavanol cocoa powder that preserves this brain health nutrient. Remember, no single food or ingredient will instantaneously give you enlightened clarity, better mental or brain health. However, a lifestyle filled with healthy habits including a nutrient-dense dietary pattern with a health-forward indulgence every so often, exercise and restful sleep is the best approach for long-term consistent, mind-body health.

Jane Dummer, RD, known as the Pod to Plate Food Consultant, collaborates and partners with the food and nutrition industry across North America. 

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