Immunity-Boosting Products Get A Gut Check

Dec. 30, 2021
Food processors are reacting to consumer needs with products that feature probiotics, vitamins and minerals… and improved gut health.

The constant drumbeat of COVID news has affected consumers in countless ways, and one of the most obvious is that it has increased awareness of immunity and how one can improve it. Food & beverage processors have absorbed that message and are responding with scores of products designed to keep people healthy.

“Now, more than ever, consumers are seeking products to strengthen their immunity so they can get back to living their lives as they once were,” says Bonnie Neulight, chief marketing and innovation officer for Rebbl, a line of natural beverages that includes immunity supporting ingredients. “Research has shown that Immune health has the potential to become even more relevant to consumers even after the pandemic does subside.”

Justin Green, director of scientific affairs for Cargill’s health technologies business, echoes that assessment: “Over the last two years, health and wellness has come to the forefront for many consumers, inspiring them to seek out food and beverages with health-supportive benefits. According to FMCG Gurus, immunity is a key concern. The market research firm reports seven in 10 global consumers have made changes to their diet and lifestyle to improve their immunity.”

Food processors are boosting the immunity value of their products by adding a number of key ingredients, ranging from vitamins to minerals to pre, pro- and postbiotics. All of them, in one way or another, support the immune system.

“Strong immunity is really the natural result of overall health,” notes William Siff, founder of beverage firm Goldthread Tonics.

Improving gut health

One of the most popular ways food processors are improving the immunity-enhancing characteristics of their products is to add ingredients that promote health of the gastrointestinal tract. This makes sense, since the lining of the gastrointestinal tract is an essential barrier between the bloodstream and the outside world.

“This is why the gut and skin are sometimes described as being the immune system’s first line of defense,” notes Victoria Lam, senior marketing manager, active living, for ingredient company NZMP, which sells probiotic strains NZMP LactoB HN001 and BifidoB HN019.

“When the gut is in poor health, then its barrier function is compromised," she continues. "This provides opportunities for pathogens, toxins and other undesirable things to enter our body or bloodstream.”

Overall, 70% of a person’s immune system is in the digestive system, explains Miguel Freitas, vice president of health and scientific affairs at Danone North America. “It’s clear the foods we consume interact with the bacteria in our gut and the immune cells in our body,” Freitas says.

A popular way for food companies to enhance the gut-protecting characteristics of their products is to include prebiotics, probiotics or postbiotics, all of which support gut health. The names of these biotics sound similar, but they are different.

Prebiotics are typically high-fiber ingredients that feed the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. In order to be called prebiotics, these compounds must be non-digestible and resistant to breakdown by stomach acid; selectively fermented by intestinal microorganisms; and nutritious to beneficial bacteria (such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacteria). Common ingredients that can be classified as prebiotics are raw chicory root, whole wheat flour and raw banana.

Probiotics, on the other hand, are the actual bacteria in the gut, such as the above-mentioned Bifidobacteria and Lactobacteria. Danone’s products Activia and DanActive contain probiotics.

“Activia includes a signature Bifidus probiotic culture (Bifidobacterium lactis DN-173 010/CNCM I-2494), plus four additional live cultures,” Freitas says. “The Bifidus culture was specifically selected because of its ability to survive passage through the digestive system and reach the large intestine in sufficient amounts."

Danone’s product DanActive contains Lactobacillus casei DN-114 001. What exactly does this probiotic do? “In a technical sense, it can improve the oxidative burst capacity of monocytes, important cells for the proper function of the immune system,” Freitas explains. “By doing this, these probiotics increase the capacity of these monocytes to protect us against different environmental stresses.”

Not all probiotics are created equal. The benefits of probiotics are specific to the strain, Lam explains, so it is important to select a probiotic ingredient that has been tested in clinical trials. For example, NZMP’s BifidoB HN019 has been shown to protect against certain diarrhea-causing infections and dysentery, as well as respiratory infections in children. And LactoB HN001 may reduce inflammation associated with Interleukin-6 and improve other immune biomarkers, and it has been shown to be effective at reducing the levels of some gut and vaginal pathogens.

Quantity also matters, Lam says. Consequently, if a product contains multiple strains of probiotics at low doses, the overall beneficial effect may be minimal.

Another key issue with probiotics is that they are live bacteria and must remain alive throughout their journey to the consumer’s gut. This makes careful preparation, handling and storage of the processed food essential.

“Remember that probiotics are microorganisms, quite often bacteria. So, just as you would kill bad bacteria using heat (e.g., cooking raw meat) the biggest factor determining whether a probiotic survives is temperature,” Lam says. “This means hot products are not a way to get probiotics. An example of this I saw was a probiotic tea bag. Pouring boiling water on probiotics is going to kill them!”

This doesn’t mean yogurt or other dairy products are the only avenues for successful probiotic delivery. NZMP’s strains, which come as freeze-dried powder, have also been used in chocolates, snack coatings and bars.

“The probiotic chocolates were very popular, simply because they taste just like normal chocolate,” Lam says. “Adding the probiotics had no impact on the taste or appearance.”

Another provider of probiotic ingredients is Gnossis by Lesaffre. “One of our products, LifeinU BSCU1, is a unique and patented strain of Bacillus subtilis that is supported by a clinical study and may support the immune health even with a small amount,” says Antoine Vanhove, product manager for Gnossis by Lesaffre. “LifeinU BSCU1 has extreme stability and promotes longer shelf life. It is suitable for many different food and nutrition matrices such as sport powders or bars, which may support immune health.”

Postbiotics, the third category of gut biotics, are the products of the gut bacteria themselves. Postbiotics are newer to the food space than pre- and probiotics. They were officially defined in 2021 by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) as a “preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host.”

In the ISAPP’s consensus statement on the definition of postbiotics, the panel that created the definition stated, “Effective postbiotics must contain inactivated microbial cells or cell components, with or without metabolites, that contribute to observed health benefits.”

Obviously, the postbiotics added to food are not actually created inside the gut. Rather, they are created under controlled fermentation. An example of a postbiotic ingredient is EpiCor from Cargill.

“EpiCor postbiotic was first established in the supplement space, but our application scientists have found it’s a good fit for food and beverages, too,” Green says. “Its recommended dose is just 500mg per day, making it easy to formulate into a wide variety of beverages, baked goods, snack bars, gummies and other foods.

"It brings a rich, brown color and unique savory flavor to formulations, and pairs well with ingredients like chocolate, vanilla and dark red fruits. In the food space, we’ve created great-tasting prototypes using EpiCor in applications such as chocolate bites, yogurts and granola bars. On the beverage side, we’ve included EpiCor into everything from chocolatey dairy drinks to teas and powdered drink sticks.”

Vitamins and minerals also support immunity

Many food processors add certain vitamins or minerals to their products to improve their immunity-boosting characteristics. These nutrients can be added as components of natural ingredients – such as fruits and vegetables – or as added supplements.

For example, Bolthouse Farms introduced two new immunity-boosting products in 2021. Green Immunity Boost includes pineapple, cucumber, apple, ginger and kale, and is a source of vitamins C, D and E, which support the immune system. Superfood Immunity Boost is made with elderberries, cranberries and echinacea, and includes key vitamins plus zinc, an immunity-boosting mineral.

“Bolthouse Farms’ immunity suite of products is receiving tremendous reception due to the products’ timeliness and great taste,” a spokesperson says. “Over the last year, customers have been increasingly adding our immunity options to their line-ups on shelf.”

A number of smaller beverage companies also have introduced immunity-boosting drinks that include key vitamins, minerals and other compounds.

Goldthread Tonics is a line of beverages that includes Elderberry Defense, which is specifically targeted to improve immune health.

“This tonic has a therapeutic level of active ingredients like elderberry and ginger to speed the resolution of common illnesses that come up and also work to prevent things from taking hold,” Siff says. “Elderberry is rich in vitamin C and phytochemicals that stimulate the immune response, and ginger stimulates circulation and has a cleansing effect internally, scouring away impurities with its fiery constituents.”

Another small company making immunity-boosting beverages is blk.Functional Beverages. This company’s line – which includes Yuzu, Watermelon, Lychee and Orange Vanilla versions of its nutrient-enriched, high-pH water – incorporates fulvic acid, a mineral that is produced by microbial degradation and is extracted from mines.

Fulvic acid has been used indirectly as an immunity-boosting ingredient in ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, and some research supports the ingredient's effectiveness. The company refers to its products as "black water" on its website.

“Fulvic acid is a very complex molecule that we still don’t know everything about, but we know it is effective because of its small molecular weight – it can penetrate cell membranes and…the blood/brain barrier, hence delivering trace minerals and antioxidants directly to one’s cells,” explains Melina Jampolis, blk.Water’s chief nutrition officer.

Rebbl launched its immunity-supporting drinks in May 2021. The drinks include baker’s yeast beta-glucan, a compound extracted from the cell wall of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast) that has proven immunity-boosting characteristics.

“We had been working on adding immune support to our products since long before COVID struck,” Neulight says. “Consumers, even pre-COVID, had a high level of interest in supporting their immune health, but we were not willing to compromise the taste and integrity of our best-selling drinks without careful development and proven research. It took time for us to perfect our blends.”

Immunity-boosting foods and beverages are becoming ever more prevalent on retailers’ shelves, and that trend is not likely to end soon. As long as maintaining good health on is on consumers’ minds, they’ll be looking for products that help them do that.

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