As the saying goes, “a cold is nothing to sneeze at.” However, that might not be the case based on a national Career Builder survey conducted by Harris Poll. According to the survey, 54 percent of employees stated they went into work when sick because they felt the work wouldn’t get done otherwise. Further, nearly half (48 percent) said that they couldn’t afford to miss a day of pay, according to data from the survey, which was conducted online from Aug. 12 to Sept. 2, 2015, and included a representative sample of 3,321 full-time workers and 2,326 hiring managers and human resource professionals across industries and company sizes.

With such a high percentage of the labor force indicating that they are willing to work even when under the weather, it makes staying healthy that much more important.

“The market for immune-health products has seen significant growth in the past decade — both across multiple immune health market segments (sports nutrition, healthy aging, and moms and children) and from a reactive and proactive healthcare approach,” says Donald J. Cox, senior vice president of research and development for Wellmune, a division of Beloit, Wis.-based Kerry’s nutrition and general wellness portfolio. “As shown by a 2015 Canadean (formerly Datamonitor) study with nearly 28,000 consumers in over 30 markets, immune health was the No. 2 most desired functional benefit consumers want in a food or beverage. This is second only to general health and wellness.”

Mike Bush, president of Cleveland-based Ganeden and executive board president of the International Probiotics Association, also notes how relevant immune health is to today’s consumers. “Consumers are looking for functional foods and beverages that provide additional health benefits, immune support included,” he says. “A recent consumer survey conducted found that out of respondents who did not typically purchase beverages, healthy consumers would be at least 29 percent more likely to purchase new beverages if they claimed immune support. Food and beverage manufacturers are responding with new, healthy products that include benefits like immune support.”

Bush notes that there are a few consumer trends contributing to this shift. “Consumers are becoming more proactively health conscious but also experiencing pill fatigue,” he says. “Functional beverages give them the opportunity to get the health benefits they’re looking for in products that are easy to incorporate in a daily routine.”

Although functional food and beverage development that targets immune health is on the rise, there still is much more in the pipeline,  experts note.

“While immune/digestive health products are a large and growing business across the globe, what’s interesting is that the growth of functional foods, beverages and supplements may still be in its early stages,” Kerry’s Cox says. “This is because consumers’ search for products created to provide specific health benefits is a recent phenomenon. Twenty years ago consumers focused absent nutritional negatives (low sodium, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners). They’ve since come to accept the presence of nutritional positives (calcium, fiber) but now are seeking targeted functional benefits (immune health, heart health, energy, digestion).

“Driving this shift are consumers who are taking a long-term approach to their health, moving from reactive, short-term fixes to a more proactive, preventative approach,” he continues. “As [previously] mentioned, with long-term immune health at the forefront of consumers’ concerns, an unmet demand for innovative products that can deliver proactively and proven immune health benefits is driving the growing functional food, beverage and supplement markets.”

Cox notes that because of consumers on-the-go lifestyles, consumer packaged goods (CPG) that carry an immune health claim will fit in with the current trends of functional products.

“We see interest in the development of immune products spanning across food, beverage and supplement categories including sports nutrition, healthy aging, children’s health and stress, including products like [ready-to-drink] (RTD) beverages, effervescent, shots, powdered mixes, etc.,” he says.

The right mix

With a demand for products that support a healthy immune system, beverage-makers are turning to ingredient suppliers to guide them in fulfilling this need state.

Cox notes that formulation can be a key component of product differentiation for consumers. As such, beverage-makers are asking what ingredients can be used to develop these immune-health products and how they will help meet consumer demands.

“What will lead the charge for meeting consumer demand is a product that includes functional ingredients backed by credible research, which offers simple product claims that resonate with consumers,” he says. “This is because more often than not, many functional ingredients fail to convey compelling claims that set them apart from other immune-boosting products.”

To fulfill this need, Kerry bolstered its nutrition portfolio when it purchased Wellmune last year. A natural immune system booster, Wellmune is a 100 percent natural food, beverage, and supplement ingredient, the company says.

“Wellmune is one of the best immune-support ingredients documented for all life stages and can be formulated into most products,” Cox says. “Wellmune is a natural beta 1,3/1,6 glucan derived from the cell wall of a highly purified, proprietary strain of baker’s yeast. Wellmune is a nutritional ingredient found in food, beverages and supplements in over 60 countries globally, is safe for everyday use and has the ability to boost immune function without over stimulating the immune system.”

Most recently, Juxx launched X-mune in Brazil. The juice beverage contains several fruits and vegetables as well as Wellmune. However, brand owners aren’t limited to only immune-boosting functionality.

“We get requests not only for standalone immune health products but multi-function products that offer several benefits,” Cox explains. “Whether it is a single benefit (immune enhancement) and/or products offering a combination of immunity and other benefits, combining Wellmune with other ingredients such as protein or probiotics gives product manufactures a competitive advantage within their market by providing more function within a single product.”

Ganeden’s Bush also notes the value that probiotics can add to formulations. “Many people don’t realize that 70 percent of our immune cells are located in our digestive system, which means digestive balance impacts immune health,” he says. “The immune cells in your digestive tract are exposed to, in some cases, thousands of species of naturally occurring bacteria — both good and bad. It’s important to keep a healthy level of beneficial bacteria to maintain digestive health, which, in turn, supports immune health.”

To support the digestive system, the company offers its GanedenBC30, which contains the patented probiotic bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086. “Thanks to our patented and science-backed probiotic strain, GanedenBC30, consumers can now conveniently get their daily dose of probiotics through everyday beverages,” Bush explains. “Research shows that GanedenBC30 is an excellent probiotic choice with immune benefits. When the body is presented with various antigens, GanedenBC30 has been shown in studies to help the body defend itself and support immune health. Multiple studies show that GanedenBC30 positively affects a large number of blood markers in the body that correlate to positive immune modulation.”

Keeping things efficacious

Although immune health products are in demand, beverage companies as well as ingredient suppliers understand that the product will only be successful if it can back up its claims.

“In general, efficacy and stability are concerns in probiotic products, so beverage manufacturers should make sure to work with ingredient companies that have the science behind their claims and provide testing and formulation assistance,” Bush says.

To ensure the efficacy and stability of its partners’ products, Ganeden performs detailed lab testing that studies the manufacturing of these products and the performance of GanedenBC30 within them, to ensure that it remains beneficial to consumers.

“With thousands of products tested over the years, Ganeden works with its partners to ensure best-of-class stability in a variety of products,” Bush says.

For example, GanedenBC30 features a structure and protective spore that allows it to survive most manufacturing processes, tout a three-year shelf life and transport through the digestive tract, he says.

“GanedenBC30 is a spore-forming strain, and its stability makes it extremely easy to formulate with,” Bush explains. “This allows it to be added into virtually any beverage from any category. Shelf-stable beverages can be a challenge, but we have found solutions to provide probiotic benefits through dispenser caps, straws and other technologies.”

Kerry also recognizes the importance that efficacy plays in its Wellmune ingredient.

“It is quite simple: Successful functional food, beverage and supplement products start with safe, efficacious ingredients supported by numerous peer-reviewed clinical studies,” Cox says.

He adds that when evaluating the efficacy of an ingredient, a beverage formulator should ask the following questions:

  • What peer-reviewed research supports the health benefit of the specific functional ingredients under consideration?
  • What benefit claims does the research support?
  • Are the claims compelling enough to help increase market share?
  • Will the claims and supporting research withstand scrutiny from regulators and consumer interest groups?

For Wellmune , the ingredient has been tested in numerous peer-reviewed clinical studies that have shown its ability to enhance key immune functions, improve overall physical health, maintain healthy energy levels, help maintain health during times of stress and provide immune support as people age, it says.

“Our latest clinical study, which was recently published in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences, demonstrates Wellmune’s ability to help keep children significantly healthier by decreasing episodes of common childhood illnesses and symptoms of illness such as upper respiratory tract infection symptoms (URTI),” Cox says.

Going forward, ingredient suppliers anticipate that ingredients that support immune health will continue to proliferate throughout the CPG market, especially beverages.

“There are many opportunities on the horizon for healthy beverages and immune health,” Ganeden’s Bush says. “As consumers become more educated on the health benefits they can receive through everyday drinks, we feel that demand will continue to increase for these types of ingredients. Consumers will become better at reading labels, pushing for healthier options with clean ingredients that are science-backed and shown to have benefits. In the coming months Ganeden will be introducing new ingredients that are focused around this specific area and we will keep you posted as we announce progress.”