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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
Marketers are finding new opportunities to teach consumers about the benefits of immune-health products.
Immune health should be an easy sell, but convincing consumers to invest in products that support the immune system on a regular basis hasn’t typically been easy. Why? Most people don’t think about immune function on a day-to-day basis and only seek treatments either when they get sick or during the typical cold and flu season.
Getting consumers to routinely purchase dietary supplements, foods, and beverages that support immune health is a challenge that those in the business continue to face. “Most [consumers] do not understand that their immune system is constantly being attacked and weakened by stressors both inside and outside the body,” says Doug Reyes, sales and marketing manager for Embria Health Sciences (Ankeny, IA), which supplies the branded immune-health ingredient EpiCor. Reyes says it is up to his company and others to educate consumers about the need for year-round immune-health support through diet, exercise, lifestyle choices, and fortified supplements, foods, and beverages.
According to Reyes, the message for long-term support is gradually getting across. “It is a very slow process, but we are seeing that consumers are beginning to be more preventative than reactive when it comes to their immune health,” he says.
While everyone, young and old, can benefit from stronger immunity, there are some key shopper types with whom an immune-health message is likely to resonate. Some of these consumer categories may seem obvious, while others represent emerging market opportunities.
If you’re an immune-health product marketer, your first stop should be parents. For busy parents, the delicate harmony of work, childcare, and everything in between can be brought to a crashing halt by one bout of cold or flu in a child-or, even worse, in the whole family. Keeping the family well is priority one for moms and dads.
Mike Bush, president of probiotics supplier Ganeden (Cleveland, OH), says that in a survey of 1000 LOHAS consumers his company conducted in 2015, “we found that the immune buyers, the people who are specifically looking for immune products, were in one of two groups: 1) parents, and 2) folks who are either baby boomers or immunocompromised people. But the lion’s share of the immune buyer is the parent buyer.”
In the Ganeden survey, 86% of respondents with children said they would be more likely to purchase a product if it contained a probiotic ingredient. Ganeden’s Ganeden BC30 probiotic strain (Bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086) has been studied for immune- and digestive-health benefits, among others.
Some of those interviewed for this story even go so far as to peg mothers as the primary purchaser of immune-health products. “Female family members are key,” says Simon Seward, global business director for NutraQ, supplier of branded immune-health ingredient Nutramunity. “Mums have a tendency to buy for kids and male family members.”
Sports Nutrition Opening Doors
Moms may be an obvious first target, but after the parent contingent, where next should immune-health marketers look? After all, while parents are likely to embrace the immune-health message head-on, immune health is not necessarily top of mind among other consumers. In an effort to reach these consumers, marketers are hitching immune-health messaging to other supplement categories, and according to nearly everyone interviewed for this story, sports nutrition is the best bet.
“Sports nutrition is the most promising complementary category for immune health,” says Rod Benjamin, director of R&D and technical services for Bergstrom Nutrition (Vancouver, WA), supplier of the OptiMSM brand of methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). “Not only does this group represent a consumer base that is focused on nutrition; they hold a well-documented concern that needs to be addressed.” That concern is over the fact that high-intensity athletic activity has been proven to strain and stress the immune system and subsequently compromise immune function. Athletes, or even “weekend warriors” who do not want to derail their exercise regimens by getting sick, are likely to embrace the concept of shoring up their immune health.
“When athletes work out or compete, it puts stress on the body in a number of different ways, which can lead to a reduction in immune-system function,” says Bruce Abedon, PhD, vice president of scientific affairs for NutraGenesis LLC (Brattleboro, VT). The MaitakeGold 404 ingredient his company provides is a patented extract of maitake mushroom fruit body containing 1,3-1,6 beta-glucans, which Abedon says “target receptors on immune-cell membranes to help support their function and provide beneficial immune-modulation activity.” MaitakeGold 404, he says, enables “sports-performance enthusiasts [to] help maintain healthy immune function both in and out of the gym.”
By courting sports-nutrition customers, immune-health marketers may even reach previously unreachable customers, such as men. “The busiest male buyers tend to buy sports nutrition with immunity as an added-value product benefit,” says NutraQ’s Seward. His company’s Nutramunity beta-1,3/1,6-glucan from baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is marketed to the sports crowd under the name NBG Sport.
More suppliers are devoting resources to studying how their immune-health ingredients benefit athletic populations. Recently, Bergstrom Nutrition announced the published results of a 40-subject study1 it sponsored in which researchers concluded that 3 g of OptiMSM, when taken during intense exercise, can help reduce the impact of suppressed immune function that occurs after exercise, “allowing cells to still have the capacity to mount an appropriate response to an additional stimulus after exercise.”
Wellmune, also a beta-1,3/1,6-glucan ingredient, derived from the cell wall of a proprietary strain of baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), is another immune-health ingredient that studies have shown specifically benefits athletes. Kerry Group (Tralee, Ireland) acquired the immune-health branded ingredient Wellmune last year. One of Wellmune’s most recent studies in athletes was a 2013 study2 in which researchers concluded that athletes who supplemented with Wellmune reduced the number of cold/flu days they experienced after intense exercise. Recently, the company even extended its research to “everyday” consumers-that is, individuals not necessarily performing up to the high intensity of trained athletes but who nevertheless exercise and may still experience compromised immune health as a result. Last year, the company presented data from a University of North Texas study in which researchers concluded that Wellmune can also positively impact the immunosuppression of this “less-active population” following moderate exercise. The company presented these results at the National Strength and Conditioning Association annual conference held in Orlando, FL, last year.
Ganeden’s Bush points out that athletes make prime study candidates because they enable researchers to study the impact of an immune-health ingredient in a healthy population. Other immune-health studies in healthy populations are generally long-term studies in which researchers can examine factors such as work or school absences, etc.; however, says Bush, those types of studies can be swayed by a number of variables (e.g., a lighter flu season this year compared to last year, etc.) and could be considered less reliable. Athletes, he says, are prime candidates in which to study any impacts on immunosuppression. “There are really well-validated models to show that you can significantly affect the immune system by a very intense workout,” he says.
“We think that’s a great market,” Bush continues. His company’s Ganeden BC30 probiotic strain has appeared in numerous sports-nutrition launches. One of the most recent is Beveri’s Probiotic Whey Protein powder containing Ganeden BC30, a product marketed for supporting digestive and immune health, in addition to other benefits. In the aforementioned consumer survey Ganeden sponsored, 36% of respondents who said they typically did not purchase protein products said they would be more likely to purchase a protein product if the product also claimed to provide immune support.
Another company that recently introduced an immune-health product for athletes is the ingredient supplier Valensa International (Orlando, FL). Last fall, the company introduced a pre-workout chewable supplement for athletes called Immunum that contains, among other ingredients for immune support, 1,3 beta-glucan from German brewer’s yeast.
Targeting Personalization and “Need States”
As immune-health marketers look for entry points, some experts believe that the best opportunities will come from identifying a specific consumer “need state,” as Megan DeStefano, probiotics global marketing leader for supplier DuPont Nutrition & Health (Wilmington, DE), calls it. After identifying a consumer’s need state, marketers can then explain how immune health relates to that need-just as they are doing already with athletes and their desire to stay active and therefore well.
This is where the market is going, DeStefano says. “We see the immune-health category, and really all supplement categories, moving in the direction of more personalized care. What we see now, and what we believe we will continue to see even more of in the future, is supplements segmented by consumer demographics such as age and gender, need states like ‘more energy,’ and life stages such as maternal health.”
DuPont has invested in research on how its numerous probiotic strains can serve the needs of specific populations, including adults, athletes, pregnant women, infants, children, and seniors/aging adults. Consider, for instance, a population as specific as infants with eczema and allergic sensitivities. As the company explains, the development of an infant’s microbiota and immune system go hand in hand, and “the disruption of the development of the microbiota and immunity during this critical period has been linked with the development of allergies and eczema.” DuPont’s Howaru Protect EarlyLife Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 probiotic strain has been proven to help support an infant’s immune balance so as to reduce the prevalence of eczema and allergic sensitivities.3,4,5 DuPont also offers a probiotic strain for the sports market-Howaru Protect Sport, a combination of Bifidobacterium lactis Bi-07 and Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM. And in its latest news, in early 2017 the company expects to publish the results of a new immune-health study on its Howaru Protect Adult Bifidobacterium lactis BI-04 ingredient.
Stress-or, more specifically, the compromised immune health that can come from stress-is another need state worth considering, says NutraGenesis’s Abedon, because “numerous studies have shown that stress can affect immune function.” NutraGenesis combines its aforementioned MaitakeGold 404 immuno-modulator with the company’s Sensoril ashwagandha root and leaf extract, which Abedon says provides stress-relieving properties, to form an ingredient called WellBody 365. “By providing immune modulation and reducing stress, WellBody 365 helps provide multi-mechanism immune support,” Abedon says.
NutraQ’s Seward also believes that marketers can benefit from emphasizing the stress/immune-health connection. “Stress and immunity are deeply connected,” he says. “Chronic stress weakens the immune system, making it more susceptible to disease. Being physically ill can induce feelings of malaise and low mood, making the whole situation worse. Immune-support supplementation can’t address the underlying causes of stress, but it can be a beneficial input to the immune system of people subject to stress on a regular basis.”
Another example of a need state is weight management, says Ganeden’s Bush. People trying to lose weight not only experience digestive stress but also may begin exercising for the first time and thus encounter immune-system stress. For those customers, a weight-management product that also supports immune health is key. Bush points to the Nutrisystem brand, which recently included the Ganeden BC30 probiotic ingredient in its TurboShakes claiming to help consumers “support digestive health, help bust belly bloat, and feel fuller longer.” “Consumers love the fact that the probiotic that is in the product helps support digestive health, helps support protein metabolism, but also supports the immune system,” Bush says. “Why not have an ingredient that can support all of those things in a product that also helps consumers support their weight loss?”
Finally, with more consumers making the connection between gut health and immune health and the fact that 70% of the immune system is located in the gut, these two markets are also increasingly complementary, says Embria Health’s Doug Reyes. “Our belief is that you will see the biggest immune-supplement growth in the digestive-health area because the two systems are so interlinked.”
Reyes says that in 2017, Embria hopes to see published the results of a new human clinical study that demonstrated the benefits his company’s EpiCor immune-health ingredient had on digestive health. EpiCor is a whole-food fermentate ingredient derived from brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). Embria says that EpiCor is more than just a beta-glucan: “Beta-glucans are simple extracts from the cell wall of yeast or grains like oats and cannot be considered a whole food. Because EpiCor is not highly processed or refined, it is a whole-food yeast fermentate containing a complex range of nutrients and metabolites, in which beta-glucan is only one of dozens. It’s the whole, natural composition of EpiCor that makes it so beneficial and unique.”
According to Reyes, the latest study showed that EpiCor acts as a prebiotic to support healthy bacteria in the gut while also supporting normal stool consistency and regularity. “We believe that EpiCor’s gut-health benefits are in part related to its overall immune-health benefits,” Reyes says. “For instance, several of our human clinical trials on immune health showed an increase in salivary sIgA antibodies, which are the most abundant antibody in your mucosal system and is believed to increase commensurately throughout the [gut] mucosa. So we could assume that EpiCor also increases sIgA antibodies in the gut to support your digestive health.”
Reyes says that immune-health and digestive-health benefits can be packaged together to address specific populations-for instance, “elite athletes such as marathon runners [who] are more prone to both immune and digestive challenges.”
“With EpiCor’s diverse benefits in the gut and immune categories, we believe that it could branch into many other categories,” he says.
As immune health becomes increasingly personalized in the ways described above, DuPont’s DeStefano says, “I predict the category will get more disparate but will also allow consumers to find an immune supplement that will match their specific needs even better than they can today.”
Spreading the Word
No matter how they direct their marketing, immune-health companies share one common goal and that is to get consumers to understand that taking care of immune health is something that should be done 365 days a year.
Are enough consumers getting this message? It’s “something we talk about all the time,” says DuPont’s DeStefano. “I believe consumers, more often than not, take many immune supplements on an episodic basis; however, consumers are increasingly focused on proactive wellness versus reactively managing health issues. And we believe there are some supplements within the category, like probiotics, that consumers are and will continue to take on a regular basis to proactively manage immune health.”
“Key groups, such as the medical and teaching professionals, and busy travelers, really expose themselves to a lot of germs and should think hard about managing their immune systems,” adds NutraQ’s Seward.
As consumers take it upon themselves to actively improve their health and wellness overall, reaching those consumers with an additional immune-health lesson will become easier. Companies that invest in the task of teaching consumers about the importance of regular immune support will be able to reap the rewards. “I think any brand willing to educate consumers on the benefits of taking an immune supplement on an ongoing basis will benefit,” DeStefano says.
Sidebar: Popular Immune-Health Ingredients
Although many consumers still need to learn about the benefits of immune-health supplementation, there are certain ingredients that are well known to most. Marci Clow, MS, RDN, senior nutritionist for dietary supplements brand Rainbow Light, outlines some of the best-known immune-health ingredients.
Vitamin C: Many consumers reach for vitamin C at the first sign of cold symptoms. Vitamin C has been intensively studied for its crucial role in normal immune function, and although the common belief that vitamin C prevents or cures the common cold has never been conclusively proved or disproved, there is some data indicating a role for vitamin C in shortening the duration of cold symptoms.
Zinc: Zinc is a major ingredient in lozenges and other products designed to prevent and soothe respiratory tract infections. When taken within 24 hours of the first symptoms, studies have indicated that zinc lozenges or syrup may reduce the length of a cold. Studies have also suggested zinc may reduce the number of colds experienced annually. Zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune system, from the barrier of the skin to gene regulation within white blood cells.
Echinacea(Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea, and E. pallida): Echinacea is one of the most widely utilized traditional herbal medicines for easing and shortening symptoms of common respiratory tract infections and is best known for its stimulating effect on immune functions.6 Herbal experts say that when a good product is taken in adequate and frequent doses at the onset of symptoms, echinacea can shorten the duration and severity of a cold.
Elderberry(Sambucus nigra): A time-honored European cold and flu remedy is a tea of elder flowers, but the scientific research has focused on the extract of berries from the black elderberry tree which are said to produce beneficial immune actions. In laboratory and animal research, S. nigra had antiviral effects, inhibiting replication of several strains of influenza.7
Andrographis(Andrographis paniculata): Several human clinical trials have looked at the herb andrographis for reducing symptoms and severity of respiratory tract infections.8
Probiotics: A healthy gut microflora contributes to overall health and vitality by promoting optimum digestion, assimilation, gut integrity, motility, and efficient removal of toxins and wastes. In fact, nearly 70% of immune activity originates in the gut. Probiotics are naturally occurring friendly bacteria that are integral to a healthy digestive system and, when taken daily, promote regularity, ease gas and bloating, and can increase vitality and boost a healthy immune system.
“Many consumers only really think about their immune health when the seasons change and they become vulnerable and begin to feel acute symptoms,” Clow adds. “However, I believe that more consumers are now understanding the key role that a healthy diet with a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein plays in allowing the immune system to function optimally, and that certain supplements can be part of an overall healthy lifestyle to proactively support immune health.”