The ongoing pandemic has had a range of impacts on the nutrition industry—shifting priorities, attitudes and consumption habits, often for the long term. Immune health brands in particular have had to adapt to new consumer needs and increases in demand. This article looks at changes to immune health markets, focusing on the trends that will characterize the “new normal,” and identifying ingredients, such as botanicals, that are likely to grow in popularity.
The immune support surge
Across the globe, demand for health supplements and other nutritional products surged in the first half of 2020. In a survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers at the end of March, 36% reported that their use of supplements had increased compared to the previous month. In May, Mintel noted that nearly 4 in 10 (38%) Asian consumers had reported a change in their consumption of health care products.
Unsurprisingly, global demand for immune health solutions in particular has increased significantly, with supplements, beverages and dairy the main delivery forms. In North America, proprietary SPINS data indicate immune health herbal formula sales nearly doubled between the first and last weeks of March 2020. Between March 2019 and March 2020, Signals Analytics reported U.S. sales of elderberry grew by 280% and sales of echinacea grew by 145%. Clear opportunity exists for immune health brands that can adapt to the changed landscape and new consumer needs. Society’s approach to health overall is permanently changing. So what will the “new normal” look like?
Botanicals for stress
The crisis has created anxiety for hundreds of millions of people across the world. One of the responsibilities of immune health companies is to provide reassurance by offering trusted solutions.
Expect to see the emergence of new herbal formulations to cope with stress, and increased demand for immune health ingredients such as elderberry and vitamin C, in combination with herbals traditionally known for relaxation, such as chamomile and lemon balm.
Renewed focus on the microbiome
In healthy human hosts, the gut microbiome achieves a symbiotic relationship with the immune system and thus plays a fundamental role in regulating immunity. Recent research has made clear that certain dietary components, such as soluble fiber in the form of beta glucan, can significantly alter the composition of the gut microbiota.1 In 2018, for example, Pham et al. found that the breakdown and fermentation of oat beta glucan increased the diversity of gut microbiota and the tightness of the gut barrier, thereby strengthening immune health function.2
Consumers are increasingly aware of the importance of microbiome health, not only for digestion, but also for a number of other health outcomes, including immune system support. Increased innovation in the microbiome and fermented space is anticipated, with more solutions featuring clean label ingredients that are friendly to microbiome diversity.
Personalized immune health
Another likely effect will be the acceleration of the personalized nutrition trend. Immune health companies will be rewarded for successfully addressing the needs of specific consumer groups, such as seniors, pregnant women, nursing mothers and people with long-term conditions (e.g., diabetes). Innovative brands will find new solutions with immune health support benefits, which consumers can take daily, such as smoothies, shots, beverages or dairy. Consumers are prone to respond positively to products that offer “enjoyable wellness” through new delivery formats, and those that offer less processed ingredients.
Botanicals: Combining ‘back to basics’ with science
Botanicals, along with natural micronutrients such as fermented wholefoods, are currently booming. One reason is their alignment with a “back to basics” approach and sense of tradition. But the appeal increases with scientific substantiation—many of these ingredients are backed by a wealth of research demonstrating immune health benefits.
Some of the immune health support ingredients poised to enjoy increased popularity in the coming years are:
The Native Americans used echinacea for a variety of health needs, and its immune-stimulating properties have been researched for decades. In 2015, a meta-analysis of six clinical studies concluded that echinacea potentially lowers the risk of recurrent respiratory infections and their complications.3
Mineral micronutrients like zinc are among the most common ingredients for products with immune health support benefits. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) considers zinc to be one of six essential minerals that are key to fighting micronutrient malnutrition, yet nearly a third of the world’s population suffers from a zinc deficiency according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the European Union (EU), zinc is subject to several authorized health claims, reported by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), including one relating to the normal functioning of the immune system.
Sometimes known as “the miracle mold,” koji is currently enjoying a higher profile thanks to growing consumer interest in fermented foods. Ultimine zinc, for example, uses a patented fermentation process, during which koji culture biomass incorporates food-grade zinc. The resulting product is a dried biomass that naturally encapsulates the zinc.
Vitamin C contributes to immune defense by supporting various cellular functions of both the innate and adaptive immune system.4 The acerola cherry (Malpighia glabra L.) is known for high vitamin C content. Suitable for applications like gummies, chewable tablets and instant beverages, Naturex’s acerola is cultivated sustainably in Brazil, and a strict standardization process means it can reach a high level of vitamin C (34%).
Trust: The foundation
The habits and behaviors that have been reinforced this year—including increased demand for nutrition with immune health support benefits—are here to stay. Consumers will expect more from immune health products and will be more skeptical about their benefits. The nutraceutical industry needs to maintain trust through a combination of tradition, transparency and scientific substantiation. Botanicals can offer all of these, making them an excellent choice for immune health brands looking to build “the new normal.”
Disclaimer: This document is intended for business-to-business (B2B) communication only. These statements have not been evaluated by FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Regulations vary from one region to another and manufacturers must check for compliance with local regulation.
Santiago Vega is director of marketing for Naturex North America. With a background in food science and an MBA in international business, he has over 15 years’ experience marketing in the nutrition sector.
1 Joyce SA et al. “The Cholesterol-Lowering Effect of Oats and Oat Beta Glucan: Modes of Action and Potential Role of Bile Acids and the Microbiome.” Front Nutr. 2019;6:171.
2 Pham VT et al. “The effects of fermentation products of prebiotic fibres on gut barrier and immune functions in vitro.” PeerJ. 2018;6:e5288.
3 Schapowal A, Klein P, Johnston SL. “Echinacea reduces the risk of recurrent respiratory tract infections and complications: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Adv Ther. 2015;32(3):187-200.
4 Carr AC, Maggini S. “Vitamin C and Immune Function.” Nutrients. 2017;9(11):1211.