The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted life around the world in countless ways. When it comes to processed food, the crisis created a significant market opportunity: an increasing demand for food that supports the immune system.
“Immunity has been at the top of our minds and on the tip of our tongues all through 2020 and as we enter 2021,” notes Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager for Virginia Dare. “Innova Market Insights reports that 45 percent of global consumers are consuming more food and beverage products that boost their immune system since COVID-19.”
When the pandemic began disrupting Americans’ lives last March, about 36% of “clean label enthusiasts” (CLE consumers) began making changes to their diets to boost their immune systems and keep themselves healthy, according to research from InsightsNow.
Nearly two-thirds of these consumers increased their consumption of vitamins or supplements, 34% ate more fruits (specifically citrus) and vegetables, and 9% increased their use of spices. Top supplements include vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, probiotics and elderberry.
ADM has identified health and immunity among its top five global food and beverage trends for 2021. About 31% of consumers are buying more products tailored for their health, and 50% prefer foods and beverages that naturally contain beneficial ingredients, according to ADM research.
“The desire to influence health and wellness through foods and beverages is creating new opportunities for nutrient-dense products with functional health benefits aimed at supporting immune systems,” says ADM.
While COVID accelerated the trend of adding immunity-boosting ingredients to processed food, it’s not exactly a new concept. Products with such characteristics—think probiotic yogurt products and gummy bears spiked with zinc and echinacea—have been growing in popularity for years. And food processors have grown in their understanding of how their products can improve the immune system.
“We now recognize the immune system is far more complex than just fighting infection—from protection against oxidative stress to our physical and mental wellbeing to the relationship with our gut microbiome,” Caputo says. “For support, consumers are turning to antioxidant-rich foods, adaptogens, therapeutic botanicals and spices, herbal teas, superfood powders, medicinal mushrooms, fermented products and holistic care.”
Incorporating whole food immunity boosters
The immunity-boosting characteristics of foods can be enhanced in a variety of ways. One important method is to incorporate certain whole-food ingredients.
One key whole food ingredient that can boost immunity is berries. Blueberries, cranberries, acai berries and many others are considered “superfoods” for their nutritional benefits, including immunity-boosting.
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On January 28, 2021, Food Processing's Pan Demetrakakes and Dave Fusaro looked at the trends, twists and turns that will likely shape the food & beverage industry in 2021—such as changing consumer behavior and immunity-enhancing ingredients.
“Blueberries are a superfruit; they’re full of antioxidants, such as anthocyanins, that are immune boosters,” says Brenna Nugent, marketing and communications manager for Graceland Fruit Inc. “We also offer cherries and cranberries, which are also considered superfruit. Cherries, for example, lower triglycerides and inflammation. And all fruit is naturally fat free and high in fiber.”
Some processed foods, particularly beverages and desserts, can incorporate fresh or frozen fruit. But incorporating fruit into processed food often means using dried fruit. Nugent notes that the health benefits of fruit carry over when they’re dried. Furthermore, dried fruit has a longer shelf life than fresh or frozen and requires less storage space.
“With a dried product, we can manufacture to our client’s specifications and offer consistent quality in every piece,” Nugent says. “And a dried blueberry is two years shelf stable.”
Nugent says Graceland Fruit berries are found in bakery products, trail mix, bars, granola, oatmeal and many other applications seeking the health characteristics natural berries offer.
Caputo says Virginia Dare has helped many clients integrate berries and other naturally immune-boosting whole food ingredients into processed foods.
“Certain ingredients invoke flavors associated with immunity, health and wellbeing, and we help brands formulate with those flavors and ingredients,” he explains. “Dark berries such as açaì, elderberry, and goji are known as rich sources of antioxidants, while ginger and mushrooms are known for anti-inflammatory properties. By integrating wellness flavors into their applications, food and beverage brands can underscore their focus on targeted nutrition categories like immunity.”
Among products found on grocery store shelves with whole food immunity boosters is Bolthouse Farms Superfood Immunity Boost, a fruit juice blend with elderberries, cranberries, echinacea, zinc and vitamins C and D; and Nature’s Gardens Fruit Balls Immune Booster, which contains dried blueberries, dried cranberries, elderberry extract and other nutrient-packed ingredients.
Improving immunity with supplement ingredients
Another way to incorporate immunity-boosting ingredients is by adding supplements designed for that purpose, such as zinc, vitamins and pro- and postbiotics.
For example, French firm Gnosis by Lesaffre offers a line of nutritional yeasts that contain immunity-boosting ingredients. Its best-known brand in the U.S. is Red Star yeast, which contains B vitamins and other nutrients that support immune health.
“In addition, Gnosis by Lesaffre offers plenty of other nutritional yeasts in the Lynside range, from selenium-enriched yeast to yeast with zinc or B-vitamins,” says Julie Lemahieu, wellness and immune health market manager for the company. “Selenium, zinc and B-vitamins are well-known for their benefits on immunity. "The most important point is to achieve high bioavailability of key components."
Probiotics are another supplement often incorporated into processed food to boost immunity. Probiotics are live microorganisms that promote gut health, which in turn can help immunity. Since they are living organisms, food processors need to take care to ensure they survive the manufacturing process.
Yogurt is a common processed food that can support probiotics. Chobani, for example, recently introduced the Chobani Probiotic yogurt and yogurt drink line and Little Chobani Probiotic pouches and shakes. These products contain four probiotic strains, LGC, L. Acidophilus, Bifidus and L. Casei.
“There’s no question that the importance of immunity has taken on new meaning in these times, and that’s why so many of our foods and drinks have benefits of probiotics to support immunity, digestive and gut health,” says Peter McGuinness, president and COO of Chobani.
However, under the right circumstances, probiotics can be incorporated into non-yogurt products as well. For example, LifeinU BSCU1 is a strain of Bacillus subtilis from Gnosis by Lesaffre that is more stable than other probiotics, Lemahieu says. Consequently, this probiotic can be used in foods such as bars and sport powders.
“LifeinU BSCU1 is a probiotic with extreme stability,” she says. “While other traditional probiotics may be sensitive to food processes with high temperatures and/or pressure, LifeinU BSCU1 offers higher resistance to harsh processing conditions.”
An example of a postbiotic in a non-yogurt food product is the Kind Bar Breakfast Probiotics Line. These bars – including Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate, Apple Cinnamon and Orange Cranberry – contain 500 million probiotic cultures per serving. Another example is the Core Bar Blueberry Banana Almond bar, which contains 1 billion CFUs of Bacillus Coagulans GBI-30 6086 per bar.
Postbiotics are another category of bioactive compounds. They are created by live bacteria, but as the name suggests, these are not living organisms, and thus are easier to use in processed food.
“Postbiotics are heat tolerant and highly stable, making them easy to work with and incorporate into food and beverage products,” says Justin Green, director of scientific affairs at Cargill Health Technologies.
An example of a postbiotic used in food processing is EpiCor from Cargill. This product was developed after officials discovered that employees working in an animal feed factory were taking fewer sick days than office colleagues; turns out the fermented animal feed contained the postbiotic that eventually became EpiCor.
“EpiCor is well-suited to a wide range of food and beverage applications,” says Angela Bonnema, a senior scientist at Cargill. “It is highly heat stable, can handle varying pH levels and has a three-year shelf life from the manufacture date.
EpiCor brings a rich, brown color and unique molasses flavor to formulations and pairs well with ingredients like chocolate, vanilla and dark red fruits. "Some of the prototypes we’ve created using EpiCor include chocolatey bites, granola bars, gummies, RTD teas and dry tea mixes, and dispersible powdered drink sticks.”
A number of food companies have jumped on the immunity bandwagon with new product launches that include combinations of whole food ingredients and supplements. In October, Uncle Matt’s Organic launched Ultimate Immune Orange Juice Beverage with elderberry, vitamins C and D and zinc. In November, Ocean Spray introduced B1U functional infused waters, including the “I need immunity” variety, which is lemon chamomile infused water with 22mg of zinc, 128mg of vitamin C and zero calories.
A long-lived trend
Even if the COVID crisis fades into history, it seems likely that immunity-boosting foods will remain on-trend. Globally, immunity-boosting products are expected to grow over the next five years and surpass $17 billion by 2025, according to market researcher ReportLinker.
Innova Market Insights has identified immunity as one of its top 10 trends for 2021. Six out of 10 global consumers are increasingly looking for food and beverage products that support their immune health, says Innova, with one in three saying concerns about immune health increased in 2020 over 2019.
“Immunity-boosting ingredients will play a significant role in the coming year, while research and interest in the role of the microbiome and personalized nutrition as ways to strengthen immunity will accelerate,” declares Innova.