The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged shoppers to seek out food and drink that boosts the immune response, according to research from Unilever’s CMI People Data Centre & CMI U-Futures.
The research reveals that interest in – and consumption of – foods that support the immune system, as well as supplements like vitamins C and D, has increased. Unilever suggests that this is a global trend. In the US, vitamin supplementation jumped 15% in the space of a month, in Brazil consumers are eating more fruit rich in vitamin C, while in Japan immune-boosting yogurts are proving popular. “The desire for health and wellbeing post pandemic is a consistent trend across all markets,” Unilever concluded.
According to the company, the connection people are making between what they eat and their personal health has reached new heights. “Having an optimally working immune system is more important than ever. The way our body deals with an infection is influenced by many factors of which the nutritional status is a critical element,” Dr Angelika De Bree, global nutrition director, explained.
And these changes are here to stay, Dr De Bree believes.
“One of major lifestyle changes we see is an exponential growth in attention to health and wellbeing with immunity being the epicentre of this attention. We think that the heightened interest from consumers in staying healthy is here to stay. In that sense, we belief that health and wellness will indeed become more mainstream.”
Holistic health is here to stay
While ‘trendy’ ingredients like turmeric or rhodiola might be making a big splash on social media in the short-term, Dr De Bree suggests that to tap into this demand in the longer-term food makers need to tackle the underlying consumer need-state through innovation.
“While at the moment focus may shift to particular ingredients that are positively associated with immunity, experts highlight the complexity of the immune system which is a complex system of molecules, cells, tissues and organs,” she noted.
Each element of this system is influenced by a ‘wide range’ of health and wellbeing factors, the Unilever nutrition expert told this publication. This includes weight and physical fitness, mental health, sleep and nutritional intake, among other things.
“Whilst some ingredients might be trending now, we can imagine that holistic health for holistic immunity is here to stay and thereby a new need state for consumers. We can help our consumers by providing relevant products and inspiring recipes that help them in a simple manner to support their immune system,” she said.
Building on Unilever’s ‘boldly healthier’ strategy
Dr De Bree said Unilever has been working on this healthy shift for ‘about one year’.
“A key element of our ‘force for good’ strategy has been ‘boldly healthier’. This calls for more plant-based and fortified products and recipes, that at the same time have acceptably low levels of sugar, salt and fat,” she elaborated.
COVID-19 has acted as an accelerator of these trends and Unilever intends to use its innovation might and powerhouse brands – from Magnum ice cream to Knorr stocks - to respond.
“Then came COVID-19, creating the biggest disruption in our lifetimes with tectonic shifts in consumer behaviours and reminding us of the importance of health. Our research shows this has resulted in a spiked interest by consumers for health and immunity.
“Experts agree that a diet that is mainly based on plants, with some animal-based products delivers the key nutrients that are needed to optimally support the immune system. If eating such a diet is not possible, for example because it is not available, fortified products may be a good solution. This shows that with our strategy focused on positive, more plant-based nutrition, we are well positioned to serve the current needs of consumers.”
Basing its approach on ‘scientific consensus’, Dr De Bree continued: “We see various areas where Unilever can play an important role”.
Unilever will ‘further accelerate’ its plant-based offerings and leverage its shelf-stable brands such as packaged soups to deliver food that is ‘rich in critical macronutrients’.
The company has also set a target of providing 200bn servings of products that ‘deliver at least one critical micronutrient that is important for holistic health and immunity’, Dr De Bree revealed. “Currently 2bn people around the globe suffer from malnutrition and as a consequence may be immuno-compromised. Vitamin A, D, zinc and iron are amongst these critical micronutrients. These are also the micronutrients that are heavily researched in light of preventing a severe COVID-19 infection and/or treatment when infected,” she noted.
Unilever’s brands focus on nutritionally dense foods
Across Unilever’s Food and Refreshment business, the company is working to deliver products that are more nutritionally dense and support health and wellbeing.
“Our Foods and Refreshment business is uniquely positioned to lead purposefully in the space of holistic health and immunity,” Dr De Bree said.
“Our biggest food brands (Knorr: Reinventing Food for Humanity; Hellmann’s: Taste the Waste) offer thousands of products and recipes which are nutritious, affordable and made with sustainably sourced ingredients.
“Our tea and herbal category delivers healthy hydration through Earth’s most sustainable plant-based drinks. Our recently acquired Horlick’s brand offers beverages designed to support the nutritional needs of children, supporting their growth and development; as well as adults. And also ice cream plays a big role in offering people a little happiness through responsible treats,” she detailed.
Leveraging wellness across the ‘balance’ of the portfolio
Dr De Bree said that Unilever believes the majority of its brands are well-positioned to respond to health and wellness concerns. “We believe the potential to leverage wellness sits in the balance within our portfolio,” she explained.
Within its Foods portfolio, Unilever is focused on meeting growing demand for nutritious snacking options and plant-based alternatives.
The company’s blockbuster brands have already responded by rolling out plant-based alternatives. Magnum Vegan ice cream and Hellmann’s Vegan mayonnaise continue to be popular, the company noted.
It has also extended its reach in the meat-free space through the recent acquisition of The Vegetarian Butcher. This business is ‘growing at a record rate’, reflecting ‘a sustained consumer trend’, according to Unilever.
This does not mean Unilever is pivoting its portfolio towards plant-based at the expense of other options, Dr De Bree was quick to emphasise. “Plant-based (or plant-forward) does not mean exclusivity. Moving towards more plant-based eating is generally healthier for people as well as for the planet. This does not mean that we will not offer choice. For example, as long as consumers still enjoy regular dairy ice cream, this will be something we will cater for.”
Knorr is another brand that is focused on improving population health and here the company has seized the fortification opportunity. Last year, Knorr launched ‘Future 50’, an initiative that encourages consumers to eat a more diverse, plant-based diet by providing healthy and nutritious recipes. Knorr’s ‘Immunity Meals’ recipes are also a source of micronutrients to support the immune system, such as Vitamin C and D.
Meanwhile, in the group’s Refreshment division, tea has seen a ‘spike’ in demand as consumers turn to Lipton’s Immune and Daily Support, seen particularly in the US, and Pukka’s immunity range, Unilever claimed.
Elsewhere, India and other South East Asian markets have seen a jump in demand for beverage-based nutrition brands, such as Boost and Horlicks. Both beverages are designed to support the nutritional needs of toddlers and children. They also fulfill an adult’s nutritional needs. Horlicks enhances women’s bone health and contains zinc, which is clinically proven to boost the immune response.
“Our brands are well suited to provide more plant-based products and inspire consumers to eat more plant-based through recipe suggestion.
“Some products are specially formulated including fortification to meet nutritional needs that support health and immunity. Some are intrinsically good such as our [herbal] teas,” Dr De Bree observed.