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How has Covid-19 changed the immune support market?

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Ingredients for immune support have received an enormous boost over the past year as consumers look for natural ways to stay healthy during the pandemic. Vitamins and minerals were early beneficiaries, but the range of products linked to immunity has expanded rapidly – especially in Europe.

Innova Market Insights named “In Tune with Immune” as one of its top ten trends for 2021, and consumer interest in foods and ingredients for immune support is strong and growing. The market researcher found more than one third of global consumers were more concerned about immune health in 2020 than they were in 2019.

New product development is catching up.

“Europe is the most active and fastest growing region when it comes to immunity claims on food and beverages and supplements,” said Lu Ann Williams, Global Insights Director at Innova, adding that 45% of all new product launches tracked globally in 2020 with an immune health claim were in Europe.

Navigating claims

Health claims have been a sore point for European manufacturers for many years as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) takes a strict approach to unauthorised statements related to health and nutrition. However, EFSA has approved immune support claims for a range of vitamins (vitamins A, B6, B9, B12, C and E) and certain minerals (zinc, copper, iron and selenium). It considers that a cause and effect relationship has been established for these nutrients’ contribution to the normal function of the immune system.

According to Williams, 64% of consumers are interested in foods that are naturally high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Some manufacturers are piggybacking on these established immune support nutrients with trendier ingredients that lack an approved claim, and a diverse range of ingredient suppliers have reported increased sales during the pandemic, including for CBD oil, mushroom extracts, and herbal formulations based on traditional Chinese medicine.

“Botanicals are riding this wave of consumer interest in immunity,” Williams said. “We see growth in use of maca, echinacea, ginseng, elderberry, rosehip, turmeric and ginger, for example.”

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Probiotics

Probiotics are another promising area for immune support, but despite a growing body of evidence that suggests increased gut microbial diversity could improve immune regulation, no one has yet convinced EFSA that probiotics are useful for immunity. Even so, Innova’s research found 40% of global consumers believe probiotics contribute to a strong immune system.

“We also see many dairy products with botanical flavours, which can also add a boost to the claim,” said Williams.

Flavours with a health halo

Innova suggests that simple flavours like honey, ginger, vegetables, tea and turmeric are most likely to resonate with consumers looking for products with immune benefits. The market researcher found that more than half of respondents in a global survey chose honey flavour for its links with immunity.

“We see products that will carry a big immunity claim on package and the flavour is guava-ginger or coconut-spirulina,” Williams said. “The front of pack claim isn’t directly related to the botanical ingredients but they certainly carry an immunity halo.”

Which categories?

Sports products with immune health claims are growing particularly rapidly, according to Innova, as users of these products tend to seek improved performance in all areas of their life. Other promising categories include soft drinks – especially fermented beverages like kombucha – foods and drinks for babies and children, and supplements. Dairy is also a category to watch, with probiotic and prebiotic ingredients that consumers associate with better gut health.

Immune support was already one of the strongest segments for functional foods, beverages and supplement before Covid-19. Now more than ever, consumers are looking to nutrition for its potential to provide greater resilience to infection, to ensure the body has all the tools it needs to fight illness, especially in light of the ongoing health crisis.

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