Lancaster Doctor Offers a “BRAINY” Alternative to Dairy

September 6, 2019


Dr. Jordan Balencic’s interest in cognitive nutrition is personal.

The Lancaster physician-entrepreneur and his wife Tessa have looked on sadly as their loved ones suffered from cognitive impairment.

Jordan’s grandfather lives with dementia and Tessa’s grandmother, who passed recently, struggled with Alzheimer’s.

As a primary care physician for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs working at the Lancaster VA Clinic, Balencic has also encountered the situation in his professional life.

“A lot of my patients complain of brain fog and they were bringing in bags of supplements for me to review as their physician,” said Balencic, adding that he was frustrated with what he was seeing. “Many of the supplements contained stimulants, like caffeine. When I discovered that these elderly consumers with heart conditions were taking these products, I realized that I could do better,” he said.

This insight led to the development of ERApeutics in March of 2018 and the launch of a stimulant free supplement for brain health called Prolimbic 29.

The husband-and-wife team has since decided that the time is right to introduce another product to their lineup—a ready-to-drink, dairy-alternative beverage that contains walnut milk and other clinically studied superfoods proven to have beneficial properties for brain health called BrainMilk.

To further their efforts, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, a State College-based seed and economic development nonprofit organization, has invested $51,025.

The Science Behind BrainMilk

One of the BrainMilk collaborators, according to Balencic, is Dr. Mike Lettieri, an emergency medicine physician from South Carolina. “I rotated with him when he lived in Hollidaysburg and I was a medical student in 2009,” said Balencic.

When Lettieri learned about the drink, he looked at the formula and said, “If you do this, I’ll invest,” said Balencic.  One of the ingredients that Balencic touts is a patented, clinically studied ingredient called NeuroFactor.

“We source it from the coffee cherry, which is high in antioxidants. When it comes to superfoods, it’s better than the acai berry,” said Balencic, adding that a lab in Illinois can extract the nutrients and leave the caffeine behind. “We now have a use for what was traditionally discarded as a waste product of the coffee industry,” said Balencic.

Walnuts are another ingredient that Balencic uses for BrainMilk and they are well regarded in the health industry. “There have been published articles that state that walnuts prevent Alzheimer’s in mice,” said Balencic.

ERApeutics has developed a high-nutrient, low-calorie functional beverage made from walnuts. The ready to drink product, BrainMilk®, is a dairy-alternative beverage that contains walnut milk and other clinically-studied superfoods and has beneficial properties for brain health. (Photo: Markell DeLoatch)

Balencic’s company is also collaborating with Pennsylvania State University to study walnut beverage product formulations. The study is being led by Penny M. Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, Distinguished Professor of Nutrition, and one of the world’s experts on walnut-based nutrition, according to Balencic.

“Her latest study about the health benefits of walnuts was published on May 1 and found that when participants ate whole walnuts daily, in combination with lower overall amounts of saturated fat, they had lower central blood pressure,” said Balencic, adding that walnuts are the only tree nuts that contain omega-3s.

Kris-Etherton said that plans are to run a clinical trial to test how Brainmilk is beneficial to the elderly population. “Our hypothesis is that it will benefit cognition and I’m excited to be part of it because many research studies have shown the multiple health benefits of walnuts as they relate to so many major diseases that affect Americans.

Walnuts have been shown to benefit cognition, heart health and diabetes,” said Kris-Etherton.

Capitalizing on a Trend

Nut milk has been catching on in recent years as a substitute for dairy, which has a high saturated fat content and may put consumers at greater risk of heart disease. Another downside to dairy is that approximately 65 percent of people are unable, or less able, to digest lactose after infancy, and that percentage is higher among some minority racial and ethnic groups, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

According to Balencic, milk protein is also inflammatory. “The cows are often in tight quarters, so with industrial dairy, those stress hormones get into our food sources,” he said.

Some may ask, “If walnuts are so good for you, why not just eat them?” “We did research and found that people have trouble incorporating and digesting nuts, so this beverage is an excellent way to introduce walnuts into their daily diet,” said Balencic.

One of the more popular alternatives to dairy is almond milk, which, according to Balencic, pales in comparison to his product. “Walnuts are higher in phytonutrients, which is what gives them that bitter/astringent taste, but homogenizing the walnuts helps us temper the bitterness and results in a creamy beverage, unlike almond milk,” he said.

Coming to a Supermarket Near You

Balencic envisions a final product with one serving of walnuts in every 12-ounce serving. “Walnuts are high fat and we want to deliver low fat, so we developed a proprietary method of removing the fat, while maintaining the nutrients,” said Balencic, adding that the goal is to provide consumers with a product that is less than 120 calories per serving.  “Each beverage will be enriched with other clinically studied superfoods as well, with ingredients ranging from ginger, to turmeric, to blueberries and even blue-green algae,” he said.

Balencic sees a bright future for BrainMilk as consumers continue to seek out healthy alternatives to dairy. “The ERApeutics team believes that consumers want to incorporate healthy beverages, foods and dietary supplements into their daily regimens, not just have unhealthy ingredients removed,” he said.