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Chef's kiss: brain-friendly cake shines light on cognitive decline


Media Release republished from UNSW Newsroom. Read the original article here.

It’s a no-brainer that food is very important for a person’s brain health.

But when it comes to improving cognitive decline, it seems you can have your cake and eat it too.

UNSW’s food and health expert, Professor Johannes le Coutre, and Director of UNSW’s Ageing Futures Institute and Senior Principal Research Scientist at NeuRA, Professor Kaarin Anstey, have helped develop a very special brain-friendly cake.

In collaboration with community care provider, Meals on Wheels NSW, the cake uses ingredients that have shown to be beneficial to the brain while highlighting the widespread issue of cognitive decline among senior Australians.

According to Prof. le Coutre, using his background in food and nutrition science to help conceptualise a cake was new territory for him.

“When I was first approached about this project, I was intrigued by the challenge of creating a cake which may be beneficial to cognition, using ingredients from different food groups, while also providing an experience for Meals on Wheels customers,” he says.

“Along with Meals on Wheels and a team of specialists, we had to consider both ingredients and texture - including how to minimise sugar, and how to ensure the cake’s texture was suitable for individuals who suffer from dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, which is a concern for some older Australians.

“Using the currently available scientific evidence, we came up with a list of foods that are understood to provide quality nutrition - which is really important as we age - while still allowing for the nostalgic enjoyment of eating a slice of cake.”

The ingredients

Dubbed ‘The Unforgettable Cake’, it was developed by master pastry chef Christopher Thé, well-known as the founder of the famous ‘strawberry watermelon cake’ from Black Star Pastry, with advice from a group of experts.

The cake includes only natural ingredients that are widely believed to be beneficial to the brain, such as beetroot, spinach, turmeric, olive oil and blueberries.

These may not seem like your typical birthday cake flavours, but individually, each ingredient plays a key role in improving cognitive function.

For the cake itself, Chris Thé used a mixture of beetroot, spinach, turmeric, and olive oil.

Beetroot has special neuro-protective properties which can improve blood flow through the brain, and consequently may improve cognitive function and cognition. Olive oil is famed for its Mediterranean diet qualities, which include the ability to protect the brain, support memory, and reduce Alzheimer's biomarkers.

The cake also includes natural sweeteners like honey which has anti-inflammatory qualities and vanilla ermine frosting which is a universally loved cake flavour. 

To finish, the cake was topped off with fresh blueberries which are loaded with essential nutrients such as polyphenols, vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese and phytonutrients which help to stimulate the flow of blood and oxygen in the brain.

While no clinical work has been conducted with the cake or all its components at once, each of the ingredients have proven to have benefits to the brain.

“This is a great example of how you can take something as fun and joyous as a birthday celebration to shine a light on some of the issues faced by our ageing population today,” says. Prof. le Coutre.

johannes le coutre and kaarin anstey

Prof. le Coutre is an expert in food and health and Prof. Anstey conducts public health research into dementia risk reduction Photo: UNSW

A master’s touch

Christopher Thé now runs Hearthe, cake store and café in Stanmore, Sydney and says the project prompted him to really think about what can be considered ‘brain food’.

“When we started out, I wasn’t prepared to guess what foods are actually brain-friendly, and there was a lot of discussion with the nutritionists and dietitians to come up with a cohesive list of ingredients that could be good for people facing cognitive decline,” he says.

“Great food is simple at its heart, and our final cake has a broad appeal, with a practical texture.

“The team really stressed it should be eaten like a traditional cake - even though it has unexpected ingredients such as spinach, beetroot and turmeric - and I hope their customers feel a sense of celebration and nostalgia when tasting it, while their interest is also piqued by the complexity of the native ingredients.”

Read more: Online tool found to be effective at assessing dementia risk

Celebrating a special occasion

According to Les MacDonald, Chief Executive Officer of Meals on Wheels NSW, The Unforgettable Cake provides an opportunity to bring attention to an issue that is endemic within the community.

“As we mark our 70th anniversary, we thought it would be timely to have a meaningful conversation about the serious issue of cognitive decline, which includes dementia and Alzheimer’s, and impacts many Meals on Wheels clients and families within our community,” said Mr MacDonald.

“A healthy diet - incorporating ingredients such as those in The Unforgettable Cake - is vital for cognitive health, because the brain is responsible for so many functions within our body, and if it isn’t working properly it impacts on our ability to engage in life and perform daily activities.

“Added to this, social engagement is known to improve brain function, and for many of our clients, a visit from a Meals on Wheels volunteer is the highlight of their week, so if we can elicit more happy memories and moments for them just by sharing a slice of cake, it adds another layer to the important role we play in the community.”

The Unforgettable Cake will be delivered to select Meals on Wheels clients from Wednesday 22 November.

It’s never too late to change your diet

While some foods are known to have some direct neuroprotective properties, long-term dietary behaviours also impact a person’s weight and general health - and risk of other chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

And, these chronic diseases then increase the risk of cognitive decline, says Prof. Anstey.

“If a person is exhibiting signs of cognitive decline, diet alone won’t dramatically improve their brain health.

“Most of the time, cognitive decline is caused by neuropathological changes that accumulate over many years. So ideally, we should be eating a healthy diet throughout our lives.

“The studies that linked healthier diets to reduced risk of dementia were measuring dietary patterns which probably reflect how people have been eating for many years.

“Having said that, if someone has a very unhealthy diet with very few or even no fresh fruit and veggies, then changing to a healthy diet will make them feel a lot better. They may notice changes due to overall better health and mental health.”