14 Sep 2022 — As COVID-19 accelerated consumer awareness of immunity, industry innovations to meet demands in a variety of formats and ingredients have led to a diverse range of immunity-orientated products and ingredients as the world adapts to living with COVID-19 and health remains in sharp focus.
Although the world is not currently in the grips of the pandemic, its aftermath is evident in the immunity space, with wellness and boosting overall health a top priority for consumers worldwide.
“Immunity has remained a top priority for consumers as they look for ways to stay healthy, a demand that has persisted throughout the pandemic. The stress and anxiety of the pandemic have also taken a toll on consumers, driving innovation in supplements for mental well-being,” Jolanda Vermulst, market intelligence manager at Sensus, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
Vitamin water has become increasingly popular, explains Manfred Urban-Klik, director of R&D, NPD and food technology, Austria Juice. “It is flavored lemonade with a medium amount of sugar and a mix of vitamins and/or minerals, commonly sold in 500ml PET bottles.”, he tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
He adds that juice shots have also risen to prominence, including “spice-juices” like ginger or turmeric juice, commonly sold in 60ml glass bottles.
Although the direct influence of the pandemic is beginning to fade, the longer-term effects can be seen in shoppers’ continued interest in immunity, which is also highlighted by the enduring popularity of the topic on social media, Maren Janecke, director of business development Europe and Africa, Kappa Biosciences explains to FoodIngredientsFirst.
“The pandemic and its ongoing impact have been a key driver for the ‘immune boosting’ trend. With no official treatment or vaccination for COVID-19 in the early months of the crisis, the only option for consumers looking to protect themselves was to strengthen their natural defenses against infection.”
According to Urban-Klik, although immunity and healthy ingredients are a more frequently discussed topic for food and new innovative product launches, food regulations and possible health claims have to be considered and are limiting the use of potential immunity-boosting ingredients.
“At the end of the day, healthy food is one brick in the whole concept of a healthy life besides the two most important aspects ‘healthy lifestyle’ and ‘exercise.’ On the one hand, there are well-explored ingredients like minerals and vitamins, which allow health claims, and which have reportedly maintaining aspects for the immunity system.”
“On the other hand, there are ingredients like ginger and turmeric. Those ingredients are known to have a positive effect on the immune system, not having an approved health claim, but well known from the consumer as a generic term for healthy ingredients.”
Rob Brewster, president at Ingredients by Nature, tells FoodIngredientsFirst that since 2019, the company’s sales have doubled each year for immune health ingredients, including pre and probiotics, as well as citrus flavonoid extracts.
“Typically, consumers know of and gravitate toward ingredients they know like vitamin C, zinc and elderberry. However, the increased demand has strained the supply chain.” Companies such as Nektium and PLT have marked their presence in the elderberry market, pointing out ingredient shortages.
In a bid to overcome some supply chain issues, Brewster says: “There needs to be more mainstream media attention on the numerous sophisticated and validated ingredients in the space, including citrus bioflavonoids.”
“Citrus bioflavonoids are drawn from multiple citrus sources such as orange, lemon, lime, tangerine and grapefruit. These extracts have been shown to contribute to and support aspects of immune health, antioxidant support, and healthy inflammatory response. In turn, this helps encourage a balanced, non-over-active immune response in the presence of seasonal challenges.”
Immunity from the gut
Vitamin C, D and zinc supplements are the first micronutrients that consumers associate with immunity support, Vermulst explains. “What not everyone knows is there is a fascinating interaction between our gut, the bacteria that live in it, diet and our brain. One group of metabolites that seem to play an important role in the gut-brain crosstalk are the Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs).”
SCFAs are produced by gut bacterial fermentation of non-digestible carbohydrates such as dietary fibers and prebiotics like chicory inulin. Dietary changes that are able to influence gut microbiota composition and production of SCFAs might be a future approach to influence immunity and mental health, she adds.
“Chicory root fiber is a plant-based dietary fiber which can stimulate the growth of bifidobacteria, lactobacilli and subsequently SCFA production in the human gut. It can be applied to maintain a balanced diet that supports immunity and mental well-being.”
Prebiotics are seeing a growing interest as immunity-boosting ingredients, but compared with well-known ingredients like ginger, the effect of those ingredients is more difficult to explain to the end consumer, says Urban-Klik.
Jenna Nelson, EpiCor channel lead, functional food and beverage at Cargill, tells FoodIngredietsFirst that while still nascent, the postbiotic segment is gaining traction in terms of media coverage, consumer awareness and product sales.
“It certainly helps that many consumers are already familiar with probiotics and prebiotics. While consumers may not know exactly what each ‘biotic’ does, they consider them beneficial to their health, and that makes it easier to understand that postbiotics have health benefits, too.”
For food scientists and product manufacturers, ingredients like Cargill’s EpiCor postbiotic offer “huge advantages” on the formulation side, Nelson notes. For example, probiotics must remain alive from processing and packaging until they reach the consumer’s gut to be effective. “As a result, it can be challenging to ensure the probiotics survive and ultimately start producing health-benefiting components.”
“In contrast, postbiotics are produced through fermentation outside the body, under highly controlled conditions. They are inanimate and highly heat and pH stable, creating formulation advantages and making it possible to deliver health benefits across a range of beverage applications.”
While the formulation flexibility may seem beneficial for manufacturers, it is also a significant advantage for consumers as they can be assured they are receiving the full health benefits afforded by postbiotics, she adds.
Future of the space
While COVID-19 has transformed the space, looking ahead, Vermulst highlights that chicory root fiber is increasingly used and works well in supplement gummies.
“A developer can create a supplement gummy with a plant-based prebiotic and better nutrition profile, but also one that has a good taste and texture. For consumers, gummies are an accessible and tasty way to take a fiber supplement.”
Urban-Klik believes “Go Natural” could be the future. Ingredients associated with immune boosting, such as vitamin C and acerola juice, could be natural clean label alternatives in the future, he underscores. “There are also natural and organic-certified vitamins on the market, which could be a cleanlabel alternative to the existing synthetically produced vitamins.”
For Nelson, synergies may play a pivotal role in the future. “We expect to see continued innovations in delivery formats and combining specialty nutraceuticals with familiar ingredients like vitamin C, Zinc, minerals, pre and probiotics, elderberry and more – to create a more synergistic effect.”
“This could offer a greater opportunity for consumer acceptance regarding the lesser understood, sophisticated and clinically backed ingredients in the space.”
One example is put forth by Janecke, who envisions combination products becoming more popular once further evidence emerges to support their efficacy.
“Take vitamin D supplements, for example. We’re already starting to see vitamin D3 used in combination with vitamin K2, but is set to become more significant as the benefits of ‘the perfect pair’ become more widely recognized.”
By Andria Kades
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