As the earliest known reference to immunity was during the plague of Athens in 430 BC, Athenian general and historian Thucydides noted that people who had recovered from a previous bout of the disease could nurse the sick without contracting the illness a second time. Centuries later, as immunity is an omnipresent health need, experts note that within the beverage space, today’s consumers are seeking products that deliver immune-supportive benefits.
“People have always been interested in improving their immunity,” says John Quilter, vice president of global portfolio at Kerry’s ProActive Health, Beloit, Wis. “However, in recent years consumers have become increasingly proactive when it comes to their health generally, and actively interested in nutrition as a means to support their natural defenses.”
Moreover, as the coronavirus pandemic has “unsurprisingly” energized the immunity trend, Quilter notes that, one of the findings of Kerry’s 2021 global consumer survey was the scale of COVID’s impact on demand — not just for immune health products, but for functional products overall.
“More than two in five (42%) of respondents globally had increased their purchases of functional or fortified foods and beverages,” Quilter says.
Jenna Nelson, EpiCor channel lead for functional food and beverage at Minneapolis-based Cargill, notes that even before COVID-19 struck, interest in immune support was on the rise.
“The last two-plus years have only amplified the trend, demonstrating the importance of a healthy immune system in dramatic fashion,” Nelson says. “Given the growing body of knowledge supporting the connection between immune health and overall well-being, we believe this is only the beginning.
“Consumers are looking for proactive steps they can take to have more healthy days,” she continues. “Beverages that deliver immune-supportive benefits can help them realize that goal.”
An immunity evolution
With a body of evidence on the role nutrition plays in immune health, experts note that research has evolved in recent years.
“For example, there’s a deepening understanding of the relationship between the microbiome and the immune system, which has further increased already high levels of interest in probiotics,” Kerry’s Quilter says. “BC3 is a leading spore-forming probiotic, which has been shown to support immune health and can be used in a wide range of beverage products.
“We’re also learning more about the immunomodulatory properties of other ingredients,” he continues. “For example, a 2020 review indicated that some beta glucans may ‘train’ the body’s immune cells to react more quickly when a pathogen is detected. [Kerry’s] Wellmune, a food, beverage and supplement ingredient, is the only yeast beta glucan supported by over a dozen published, peer-reviewed clinical studies.”
Cargill’s Nelson notes that, although today’s consumers most closely associate vitamins C and D with immune health, the emerging postbiotic beverage 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,” she says. “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,” she explains.
For food scientists and product manufacturers, Nelson highlights how ingredients like Cargill’s EpiCor postbiotic offer advantages on the formulation side.
“While probiotics must remain alive ― from processing and packaging until they reach the consumer’s gut, postbiotics are not living organisms and are highly heat and pH stable,” she says. “Further, while prebiotics typically require relatively large use rates, EpiCor postbiotic has a recommended use rate of just 500 mg. This formulation flexibility creates a clear differentiation for postbiotics, making it possible to deliver immune health benefits across a range of beverage applications.
“[EpiCor] is backed by over 75 years of fermentation expertise,” she continues. “It is produced through a natural, proprietary process that creates a unique fingerprint of metabolites. To date, there are more than a dozen published studies supporting its health benefits. Among the findings, these studies show EpiCor postbiotic supports year-round and seasonal nasal health, immune defenses to face daily challenges, and healthy gut function.”
Formulation flexibility is key
Although certain beverages are particularly well-positioned for incorporating immune-supporting ingredients, experts note that formulation flexibility is key for adding probiotics and postbiotics to a variety of beverage products.
Cargill’s Nelson notes that, although formulation flexibility might seem beneficial for manufacturers only, it also can be advantageous for consumers.
“As the functional beverage category takes off, many brands are looking for ingredients that can deliver health-supportive benefits ― especially around immunity and gut health,” she explains. “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.
“EpiCor has been easy to formulate into a wide variety of beverages, including chocolate milks, coffee drinks, teas, smoothies and more,” she continues. “EpiCor fortifies these applications with immune and gut health support all backed by a three-year shelf life.”
Kerry’s Quilter notes that with most processing conditions encountered in beverage manufacturing, Wellmune is compatible from a flavor and stability standpoint.
“Categories where it can add immune support benefits include juices, smoothies, energy drinks, enhanced waters and dairy drinks,” he says. “Wellmune can be easily formulated into a wide variety of beverage products. It’s available in soluble and dispersible powder formats, has no adverse flavor impacts, is highly stable and has a five-year shelf life.
“Meanwhile, the emergence of resilient, spore-forming strains has allowed formulation with probiotics in a much wider range of beverages,” he continues. “For example, because spore-formers can withstand exposure to boiling water, manufacturers have been able to use them in tea and coffee products.”
Immune-support for all ages
Given the importance of immune support at all stages of life, experts note that it is a top concern for consumers across all age groups.
“Research from the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2022 Food & Health Survey suggests that immune support is a top priority for adults ― young and old ― but it resonates especially well with millennials,” Cargill’s Nelson says. “Still, across the board, the IFIC research found strong interest in products that support immune health.
“In the recent survey, one in four consumers reported seeking out immune health benefits from foods, beverages and nutrients ― suggesting plenty of opportunity for brands targeting the functional beverage space,” she continues. “Today’s heightened interest in immune health shows no sign of abating ― but we believe savvy consumers want products backed by scientific research.”
Kerry’s Quilter notes that, although COVID-19 also has raised the stakes in terms of consumer expectations of scientific substantiation ― people now are even more likely to ask questions about the claims made by brands.
“One of the changes has been a broadening of the areas where consumers are looking for benefits,” Quilter says. “Their needs are becoming more complex, so there’s now greater interest in areas like stress relief, energy and mood, as well as immune support, creating opportunities for hybrid products which offer multiple benefits.
“The world may be returning to a ‘pre-pandemic normal’ in some respects, but the interest in products offering immune support will endure into the foreseeable future,” he concludes.