Immunity has received a lot of attention recently, for reasons that are so self-evident that they don’t need to be stated again.
It cannot be overstated, the degree to which users, eager to fortify their internal defenses. They have responded by incorporating immune-boosting supplements into the fight against emerging risks. And by seeking refuge in the antioxidant defense of the whole vegetables and fruits.
Or, in the particular instance of an increasing immunity, by allocating a portion of their health-defense budgets.
The budget for the acquisition of a stockpile of functional foods and beverages that have been strategically designed to boost immunity.
According to Cashtyn Lovan, head of marketing at Cargill Health Technologies, their efforts could benefit the entire health and wellness industry (Ankeny, IA). According to her, “it’s not so much that consumers are withdrawing from the dietary supplement as they are now anticipating more from their food and beverage choices.”
And, with brands incorporating promising immune-boosting ingredients into applications that are as appealing as they are effective, consumers’ expectations are being met.
Having a Positive Attitude Towards Feeling Better
One of the most remarkable stories to come up from the disease outbreak has been the enlightenment of consumers not only to immune health but also to its relationship to diet and nutrition.
And the dietary supplement industry has reaped the benefits of this awakening handsomely.
“As we’ve seen in the last year,” says Lior Lewensztain, founder and CEO of That’s It. (Los Angeles), “immune-related supplements experienced a dramatic spike in demand as consumers sought ways to proactively manage their health and immunity amid a global pandemic.”
And, as Lovan points out, the rise in interest in immunity did not begin with the pandemic, nor will it end with it. She cites HealthFocus International data showing that as recently as 2018, 4% of consumers claimed to always choose foods and beverages to boost their immunity. “And by the fourth quarter of 2020, that number had jumped to 13 percent,” she says.
Some other check that immunity is here to stay: “The pattern of consuming immune-health food items is shifting to a year-round approach now that individuals are looking to support their immune systems proactively and consistently,” says Maria Stanieich, marketing manager, Kyowa Hakko USA Inc. (New York, NY).
Immunity Boosters in the Menu
Consumers are not only leaning into immunity these days; they are also learning about it, which is fueling interest in achieving it through functional formulation.
“We’ve seen that customers had the time and motivation over the last year to discover and investigation natural ways to enhance and support their immune responses as they’re trying to look beyond just supplementing with pills to shift more of their involvement toward combining food products with functional and immune benefits into their daily diets,” Lewensztain says.
To be sure, Ali Webster, Ph.D., RD, director of research and nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council (IFIC; Washington, DC), warns that “while we know overall good nutrition is important to maintaining optimal immune health, there is no ample proof that any specific food or nutrient could provide a quick fix.”
Nonetheless, she adds, “it’s also evident that Americans have a persistent interest in the role that foods and certain nutrients may play in promoting immunological health.” This interest, in turn, is inspiring the development of functional products.
Immunity Booster Bottle (or Can)
According to John Quilter, vice president of the global portfolio, ProActive Health, Kerry, a lot of the action is in the functional-beverage area (Beloit, WI). “Between 2016 and 2019—long before the events of 2020—launches of beverage products with an immunity claim increased by 9 percent in the juice category, 43 percent in flavoured bottled waters, and 32 percent in energy drinks,” he says, citing Innova data.
None of this comes as a surprise to Ilana Orlofsky, senior marketing manager at Imbibe (Niles, IL). As beverage developers, her team has discovered that, while immune-boosting formulation has been a continuous project topic over the years, “we’ve witnessed a huge spike in these requests in the last 12 months.”
The beverage demands range from juices, syrups, and powdered mixes to shots, sparkling water, and more. “They aren’t confined to a single genre or format,” adds Orlofsky.
Furthermore, Big Beverage is joining in on the fun. Mountain Dew Rise, for example, contains vitamin C “to substantiate its immune-support claim,” she adds, but PepsiCo’s LifeWTR immune-support SKU “leans on 10% of the RDV for zinc.”
Then there are the products that “may not be household names,” but are nonetheless moving the innovation needle, such as Hellowater’s Defense range of fibre drinks, Riff’s Sparkling Energy+ line with antioxidants, and Jordan’s Skinny Mixes’ Citrus Splash flavour, which has vitamins C, B12, and zinc.
So, why are people drinking their way to health?
Orlofsky believes that “a reduced barrier to entry, or a smaller commitment, is a key driver for functional beverages in general.”
“There is some truth to the idea that developing a habit of taking a pill or gummy until you’ve gone through a bottle of 60 to 100-or more-requires far more dedication than drinking a 75 ml shot or 350ml can once or twice.”
“We know that young users are adventurous, and big proponents of snacks, which we believe holds appeal partly because it exposes them to more flavour profiles and sensory experiences-dimensions that resonate with Gen Z and Millennials,” she says of fueling interest in functional foods in general. And functional eating and drinking are all about the experience.
The actives at the action in those functional nibbles and drinks include both recognized immune players and new nutrients that are only beginning to accumulate study data.
In terms of the former, Orlofsky claims that “the alphabet vitamins—A through E,” as well as zinc, elderberry, echinacea, turmeric, and ginger, all score high among the immunity components Imbibe is keeping an eye on.
“We’re also seeing new naturally high in vitamin C foods crop up,” she says, “and we expect greater movement in these for the next several years.”
“Another promising component is beta-glucan,” she continues, noting that it not only helps immune health but is also one of the actives found in popular medicinal mushrooms.
Quilter adds out that Kerry’s Wellmune, a natural yeast beta-glucan with immunological benefits supported by more than a dozen peer-reviewed clinical trials, has been a staple in immune supplement formulas for years. However, it is increasingly emerging in functional meals and beverages as well.
“Last year, Charles & Alice, a prominent maker of nutritious fruit and vegetable-based snacks, released Fruit Friends Fortified Fruit Pouches with Wellmune for the United States market,” he says. Simpl Innovative’s Phab protein powders and RTD shakes, which debuted in 2020, he says, were India’s first protein drinks made with yeast beta-glucan for immunological wellness.
“These are two very different products in very different markets,” Quilter says, “but what they have in common is their ability to harness the science underlying Wellmune to showcase its true immunological benefits—and when it comes to immunological health, scientific substantiation is everything.”
Kim Edwards, global product manager, Kemin Human Nutrition and Health (Des Moines, IA), concurs, adding that algae have a long history of trust in functional foods and drinks in the Asia-Pacific area. Furthermore, she claims that Kemin’s BetaVia Complete, a beta-glucan derived from a proprietary strain of Euglena gracilis algae, has appeared in a variety of products ranging from functional drinks, shots, and energy bars to eggrolls, fruit jellies, and soups.
“North America is only beginning to take notice and formulate using this ingredient,” she adds, “but we anticipate considerable sales increase in different functional foods and beverages in the next year.”
The advantages of beta-glucan derive from its capacity to activate macrophages and dendritic cells, which serve as “the body’s first line of natural defence,” as well as its promotion of healthy Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species and contribution to GI-tract integrity, according to Edwards. She also emphasises the algal ingredient’s “great match” with plant-based product marketing.
Adopting Pro- and Pre- and Post
“We expect probiotics and prebiotics will gain greater momentum in the next year as a way to overall immunity,” says Kishan Vasani, co-founder and CEO of Spoonshot AI (St. Paul, MN). And the reason is simple. “Consumers are already aware of these substances, and research is highlighting the importance of gut health to overall health and wellness. As a result, it won’t be difficult to persuade consumers that probiotics and prebiotics may help boost their general immunity.”
Lewensztain goes so far as to name probiotics “the true standouts of the last year for their immune-boosting effects.” That’s It. incorporated probiotics into their probiotic fruit bars to provide those advantages to on-the-go consumers. “One of the most significant advances of these bars is that they have made probiotics completely snackable,” Lewensztain adds. “They are not only high in prebiotics and include a portion of fruit, but they are also shelf-stable and do not require refrigeration.”
Shintaro Ichikawa, Ph.D., director of technical affairs at Kyowa Hakko USA Inc. (New York, NY), explains that his company’s Immune component is a “new paraprobiotic”—a proprietary strain of Lactococcus lactis that stimulates the immune system’s plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs).
This “rare form of immune cell frequently regarded as the immune system’s ‘commander-in-chief,’” Ichikawa adds, aids in the organisation of the NK, killer T, helper T, and B cells that “take action for a more comprehensive approach to immune support.” This distinguishes Immuse’s mode of action from that of traditional lactic-acid bacteria, which do not operate on pDCs, he says.
Postbiotics, bioactive substances composed of microbial cells, cellular components, and metabolites produced by bacteria during fermentation and conferring health benefits on their hosts, add to the probiotic storey.
Postbiotics have just appeared on radars, according to Lovan, but Cargill’s EpiCor postbiotic—a yeast fermentate demonstrated in more than a dozen published studies to improve immune health via gut-microbiota modulation—is already emerging in functional formulations.
Postbiotics, unlike probiotics, are not living organisms, making them more formulation-friendly, according to Justin Green, Ph.D., head of scientific relations at Cargill Health Technologies. And, thanks to its heat and pH tolerance, as well as a three-year shelf life from the date of manufacture, Cargill’s EpiCor provides “increased stability and consistency in formulations ranging from nutrition bars and beverage shots to teas, gummies, and chocolate coatings,” he says, “where the daily effective dose for adults of 500 mg is indeed very achievable.”
According to Cargill proprietary research, about one-third of consumers already perceive postbiotics as contributing to a healthy gut and immune system, according to Lovan. It’s no surprise she’s optimistic about them. “While they are still relatively new to foods and beverages,” adds, “given their scientifically supported advantages, we believe that demand for goods containing postbiotics will continue to grow.”
Demand for immune-boosting functional foods and beverages, in general, will rise.