Beta glucans – an important component of dietary fibre – can be found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae, lichens and plants like oats and barley.
There is growing evidence that supplementing with beta glucans can support the body’s natural defences.
A recent review, published in the Molecular Nutrition & Food Research Journal, highlights several clinically supported studies that point to the benefits of supplementing with beta glucans. It concluded beta glucans support overall immune health in a range of healthy populations, including children, athletes and people with mild allergies.
‘A hyper growth category’
Growing awareness of – and interest in – ingredients that boost immune health is propelling innovation in the space. Ingredients like beta glucans are moving out of the supplement sector and into mainstream grocery aisles.
“Food products fortified with ingredients that help strengthen the immune system are now more popular than ever,” Charles & Alice VP of Marketing Evan Eckman told FoodNavigator.
Charles & Alice is a French dairy group that manufactures kids yogurt brand Fruit Friends. Eckman explained that the fruity flavour and link to well-known cartoons are strong selling points for kids – but parents are hooked by the brand’s immune-boosting promise. The company fortifies its yogurts with Wellmune, a beta glucan ingredient produced by Kerry, and this is clearly communicated front of pack.
“Mums with young children love that Fruit Friends with Wellmune is clinically shown to help strengthen the immune system of children. Children love Fruit Friends’ delicious fruity taste, and they love the blockbuster movie characters featured on every pouch - such as Frozen-2 and The Avengers,” Eckman explained.
Since the brand’s launch in the US, Eckman said the Fruit Friends brand has been well received by the market. “In some stores, our new Fruit Friends with Wellmune products have already out-sold the leading brands in the category,” he said. “Interest in Fruit Friends with Wellmune is growing fast with retailers... Over the next weeks, we’re significantly expanding Fruit Friends with Wellmune retail and on-line availability.”
Eckman is bullish on the prospects for the category and suggested that Charles & Alice will continue to innovate around products with immune enhancing ingredients. “Immune system health products will remain a hyper-growth category for years to come,” he predicted.
Mainstreaming an accelerating trend
John Quilter, VP and general manager at Wellmune supplier Kerry, agrees with this outlook. “Demand for food and beverage products with immune health benefits is inevitably going to increase,” he predicted.
While the current coronavirus pandemic is a ‘key reason’ for surging demand, Quilter stressed that this was a trend that was already on the up and up.
“Last year, before the outbreak, Wellmune surveyed 11,000 consumers in 14 global markets and asked them about their reasons for buying healthy lifestyle products. They were asked to select five options from a list of 13 health areas and rank them in order of importance. Nearly two thirds (63%) chose immune system support, ahead of healthy bones and joints, good digestive health, improve energy levels and heart health support,” he told FoodNavigator.
The Wellmune consumer research also highlighted an interesting aspect of consumer demand – and that is the desire for these benefits to be delivered in day-to-day food and beverage products.
“Demand has definitely extended into mainstream food and beverage aisles. One of the areas we explored in our survey was where people want to get immune health benefits. In all regions, supermarkets were the top destination for shoppers looking for fortified food and beverage products, suggesting that it is important to position immune support products in mainstream retail channels. The two most popular categories for immune health benefits were yogurt and yogurt-based drinks, and juices. In fact, people were more interested in getting immune health benefits in these categories than in dietary supplements,” Quilter revealed.
Food and beverage innovators are already responding to this demand. Mintel data show that in the 12 months to January 2018 15% of all juice launches in Europe featured a functional claim, compared with 10% in 2013.
“We’ve seen particularly high interest in immune health benefits in the refrigerated juices category, where 87% of consumers say they would be interested in buying a product if it contained our immune health ingredient Wellmune,” Quilter claimed.
“We’re also finding manufacturers are looking for immune health ingredients in a wide range of mainstream food categories, including cheese, cereals, baked goods and snacks.”
The blurring division between ‘functional’ and ‘mainstream’
Evolving attitudes to diet have reduced the distinction between ‘functional foods’ and mainstream grocery.
Indeed, the majority of shoppers say they are interested in fortified food and drink products. Research firm Global Data reports that 73% of consumers find products fortified with added nutrients appealing, with 87% expressing an interest in immune health.
Alongside the consumer pull, Quilter believes that ingredient development is supporting ever more advanced product formulations and unlocking the door to innovation in the space.
“Technical improvements have made it much easier for food and beverage manufacturers to formulate with immune health ingredients. Wellmune, for example, is compatible – from both a flavour and stability standpoint – with most processing conditions encountered in food and beverage manufacturing,” he told us.
Future growth expected
Pointing to long-term drivers for the sector, Quilter suggested that food and beverage products that deliver immune benefits are likely to see strong demand growth well beyond the coronavirus crisis.
“All the indications are for future growth. Even before the coronavirus crisis, immunity was consumers’ top health concern, with many demanding immune health benefits in their favourite products. On top of that, factors such as population ageing, and the fact that people are increasingly proactive about their health, means it is likely to remain so.”
In fact, Quilter continued, the ‘big question’ probably isn’t whether demand for immunity-boosting products will increase, but how manufacturers can differentiate within the space. “We believe the most effective strategy is to use ingredients that are clinically proven and meet consumer demand for scientific substantiation,” he noted.
β‐1,3/1,6‐glucans and Immunity: State of the Art and Future Directions
Molecular Nutrition & Food Research Journal
Authors: Elena De Marco Castro, Philip C Calder, Helen M Roche