Is immunity really the top functional choice for consumers in a pandemic era?

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags functional beverage Immunity COVID-19

It sounds pretty logical – the pandemic has prompted increased interest in immunity across F&B. But is it really top dog in the world of functional beverages – or are there other claims consumers are more interested in?

And – with the rise in beverages promoting immunity positioning - what ingredients are powering these drinks?

Experts from Kerry, SVZ Ingredients, and Glanbia Nutritionals reflect across the demand they’ve seen from consumers and beverage brands.

From vitamin C to botanicals: immunity-driving ingredients

Taste and nutrition company Kerry’s research shows that immune health is the number one health benefit consumers want from their beverage products.

“When asked about which health concerns have become more important since the pandemic, immunity rises to the top – a massive 59% of Europeans report increased concern here,”​ John Kelly, Senior Strategic Marketing Manager – Beverages, Kerry Europe and Russia, told us.

“It is important to recognize that immunity will continue to consolidate its position as a dynamic demand space in the beverage category and that there will be opportunities to develop products that appeal to both proactive and reactive consumer types and occasions.”

So what are the ingredients helping meet immunity demand from consumers?

“When asked to rank the ingredients of most interest in the immunity space, consumers report a clear preference for vitamin C (85%), vitamin D (84%), honey (82%), probiotics (79%) and green tea (79%),” ​reports Kelly.

“There was also leading interest in ‘halo’ ingredients such as ginger, pre-biotics and botanicals.”

While botanicals are most closely associated with digestive and gut health, 55% of consumers pointed to immune support as one of the perceived health benefits (in fact, coming in close behind digestive and gut health, which was highlighted by 61% of consumers surveyed by Kerry’s Botanical State of Mind consumer research). That leads to increased interest in ingredients such as honey, ginger, mint, cinnamon, coconut, lemongrass, turmeric and green tea.

Finally, Kelly says that ingredients with scientific backing– such as Kerry’s Wellmune and BC30 – also draw in consumers. Kelly’s suggestion, therefore, is to combine different ingredients to cover all bases.

“For maximum credibility, there is a role for ‘hero’ ingredients backed by scientific evidence, as well as ingredients favoured by consumers. Combined, these will bolster the overall impact.”

Antioxidant potential

Fruit and vegetable ingredient supplier SVZ also sees demand for functional ingredients influencing its business.

“We have seen a pronounced increase in demand for ingredients particularly focusing on immunity,”​ said Johan Cerstiaens, Commercial Director, SVZ.

“58% of global consumers state they would be interested in products that promote heart health, cognitive health, and immune health benefits,  so it’s safe to say that the effects of the pandemic have certainly encouraged people into learning more about how our immune system works and just how important it is all year round.

“Improving immune health can be achieved in many ways but a combination of exercise and a healthy diet with the correct balance of nutrients is at the forefront. Beverages, which can easily be fortified, are the perfect vehicle for these types of nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

“As the go-to source of these nutrients, fruits and vegetables such as antioxidant rich berries, including elderberry and blueberry, red beet, and spinach are an ideal solution for beverage manufacturers seeking to meet this rising demand. By incorporating SVZ’s juices and purees into their beverage solutions, NPD teams can give their latest food and beverage products the desired nutrient profile and ‘health halo’.”

Immunity is important - but not the most important - functional claim 

According to Glanbia Nutritionals’ own proprietary research, 46% of consumers are interested in drinking beverages naturally high in immune system supporting ingredients, and 30% are looking for those that are fortified with immune support ingredients.

Niki Kennedy, Senior Strategic Insights & Analytics Manager, at Glanbia Nutritionals, based in Chicago, Illinois, agrees that immunity is ‘without a doubt, top of mind for consumers today’. However, she argues that immunity is not the most important thing to today’s consumers.

“US consumers are still looking for energy and hydration above all other attributes. According to functional food and beverage research done by The Hartman Group in April 2020, hydration and energy were the top two functional attributes of consumers who were currently using/interested in functional beverages.

“While those two benefits may reign supreme, about 60% of those surveyed indicated that immunity and general prevention was driving current use or interest. However, we do see strong sentiment toward immune-system associated ingredients topping ingredient fortification lists including antioxidants (vitamin C and E), super fruits (acai and blueberry) and probiotics.”

In the same way that immunity has been a response to the pandemic, energy will be the response to a return and readjustment to hectic lives.

"As the world begins to open up and consumers start to ramp up their on-the-go lifestyles, we predict a fresh look at energy to re-emerge."

The ultimate pandemic drink?

But ultimately, it doesn’t need to be an ‘either/or’ situation, says Kennedy. Meeting both immunity and energy desires might just be the way to hit on a winning functional beverage.

“Coupling immune-health associated ingredients with electrolytes and natural caffeine or energy sources is the type of multi-faceted functional beverage consumers seek today,” ​she said.

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