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Immune response: targeted concepts for building natural defences

  • 08 April 2021
  • 5 min

Brenntag’s Nutrition team has married an efficacious vitamin and mineral complex with appealing botanicals and flavours to create market-ready immune health concepts.

Even before coronavirus, immune health was on an upwards trajectory; the number of new food and beverage introductions carrying an immune health claim climbed by 16.5% annually between 2015 and 2019, according to global data from Innova Market Insights. Since the pandemic hit, that trend has escalated to new heights, propelled by a shift in consumer priorities in an uncertain world.

“Covid has triggered a shift in people’s mindsets and they are prioritising health over other investments. They understand that making certain diet choices can help them be more resilient to illness. This is the catalyst behind the immunity trend,” notes Michiel van Genugten, who is responsible for Global Business Development for the Business Unit Nutrition at Brenntag.

Whether it is conscious or sub-conscious, consumers are factoring immune health into dietary decision-making in a way that is unprecedented. This is clear to observe in changing buying behaviour. 45% of consumers globally say they are consuming more food and beverage products that boost their immune system*.

Immunity-driven innovation

Food and beverage NPD is responding to this growing consumer appetite for immunity. To date, the immune health landscape has been dominated by dietary supplements; in 2019, supplements represented 44% of food and beverage launches with an immune health claim tracked by Innova.

However, going forwards, immune health looks set to take hold in other categories as it gains traction. Dairy – already the fastest growing immunity category – is expected to lead the charge, with hot drinks, sports nutrition, baby & toddler foods and snacks also poised for growth.

“We absolutely see this trend broadening, into dairy products, snack bars and other categories, as more and more consumers understand what immunity is and the food industry provides that missing link,” says Michiel van Genugten.

Mass market potential

What is particularly interesting about immune health is that unlike some functional food platforms, it has mass market potential. Broadly speaking, the Brenntag Nutrition team sees two target audiences for products with an immunity positioning.

“There are those who really believe they need to protect their health and are willing to spend money to do so, then there are those who are financially insecure. Affordable immunity solutions can give the food industry access to a broader market,” notes Michiel van Genugten.

Within this context, Thomas Fanzlau, Business Unit Manager Food Solutions DACH, and his team, set about developing innovative concepts to inspire customers who are looking to harness the immunity opportunity.

Vitamins & minerals: superhero powers

With EFSA-approved health claims and a proven track record, vitamins and minerals are the ideal foundation for immunity products. In Brenntag’s new concepts, these trusted micro-nutrients are placed side by side with complementary ingredients such as botanicals or probiotics that can elevate and differentiate a product, adding depth, personality, edge and heightened consumer appeal.

“Vitamins and minerals have a proven success record and scientific proof – they are essential for maintaining immune system function. That is why we rely on these ingredients as the backbone of our concepts. Nevertheless, we see intensifying interest in extracts and other ingredients that do not have health claims but are linked to improving health and wellbeing or have a history of use in treating illnesses. Therefore, we combine both worlds in our concepts,” explains Thomas Fanzlau.

Immunity concepts to get the creative juices flowing

The first of these concepts is Immune System Boost, a carefully balanced blend of vitamins, minerals and extracts that provides manufacturers with a flexible architecture for developing premium immunity products. Soluble and vegan, the blend can be used to fortify Ready To Drink (RTD) beverages, as a complete solution for direct use sachets or as a formulation for dietary supplement capsules.

Vitamin C, which Thomas Fanzlau refers to as the “hero vitamin”, is at the core of the Immune System Boost concept. With recent scientific studies indicating that high-dose vitamin C could have a beneficial effect for immunity, this premium blend delivers 250% of the NRV (Nutrient Reference Value) of vitamin C.

Vitamins A, B12, B6 and D, iron, zinc, copper and selenium complete the vitamin and mineral complex that forms the basis of the Immune System Boost concept. The addition of the top-trending extracts lemon balm, echinacea and ginger builds in another layer of sophistication and interest. “The extracts we have chosen benefit from accepted use and positive associations with health in the minds of consumers. Echinacea, for example is often used to treat colds while lemon balm is well known as an essential oil to relieve stress and support wellbeing. The inclusion of these extracts is not about making hard claims, but about meeting consumers’ immunity-related expectations,” notes Thomas Fanzlau.

The blend can be supplied as a neutral tasting ‘canvas’ or as a flavoured ready to use solution. As a starting point, Brenntag has developed tangerine and orange flavoured blends.

Affordable immunity concept is ‘on the money’

Brenntag has also developed a basic blend that addresses the ‘affordable immunity’ opportunity. Formulated initially with beverage applications in mind, the Immune Plus platform provides immunity-relevant micro-nutrients vitamins C, A, B6, B12 and D3, zinc and selenium, but in lower doses and without the addition of botanical extracts, for a more economic cost in use. Brenntag’s application specialists have carefully constructed the blend so that although the levels of vitamins and minerals are lower than in the Immune System Boost complex, the thresholds for making EFSA-approved health claims are still reached.

Although vitamins & minerals are some of the most established health ingredients, they still present formulation challenges. With minerals, the chief challenge is one of bioavailability, as Natalie Baumgartner, the product development expert who led this project, explains: “It is difficult to find minerals with good bioavailability, especially iron.” The team overcame this by using a chelate carrier system for the capsule blends. “This combination of one metal ion and two molecules of the amino acid glycine enhances mineral bioavailability,” she says.

With vitamins, the main difficulty was maintaining a pleasant taste whilst delivering a ‘super’ dose of vitamin C. “Vitamin C is very sour tasting. We had to work hard to find the optimum ratio of different vitamin C forms,” recalls Natalie. Solubility was a further challenge that the development team encountered, particularly with the botanical extracts. “Finding raw materials that offer good solubility isn’t easy. Fortunately, we have a global network of suppliers, so we are not dependent on a single source. By comparing different extracts, we were able to find those with the best solubility,” says Natalie Baumgartner.

She stresses that all of Brenntag’s solutions are customisable. “The use of lemon balm and echinacea is just the beginning. We have an open botanical garden and the immune system concepts can be expanded,” she says. For example, the concepts can be easily adapted to other applications, such as jellies, candies, iced tea, hot beverages, and effervescent tablets.

Immunity Drink

Delighting Turkish tastebuds

These concepts are geared towards westernised tastes, but with immunity fast becoming a global trend, Brenntag’s Nutrition in-country teams are working on formulations for specific geographical regions.

Brenntag’s Turkish team, for example, has developed a sparkling immunity drink based on pomegranate juice – a popular flavour in the Middle East. Last year Brenntag Food & Nutrition has signed an agreement with Naturex by Givaudan to distribute the company’s natural colours and botanicals in the region. This collaboration has given Brenntag access to a broad range of natural ingredients, and in this drink, an immunity-functional blend of vitamins and minerals is combined with the botanicals panax ginseng and echinacea purpurea. This has resulted in an on-trend, beverage concept that, as well as appealing to localised tastes, meets the criteria for making EFSA-approved claims.

“The Turkish diet is packed with natural vitamins from fresh citrus fruit and vegetables, so to succeed in this market, packaged foods and drinks have to taste good and have strong natural credentials,” notes Gamze Ünver, Business Manager, Brenntag F&N Turkey & Middle East. “Immunity is still very much a niche in the Middle East compared to Europe, but the market has already changed a lot since Covid,” she adds.

An enduring trend?

The question on many people’s lips is whether, once the pandemic passes, interest in immunity will pass too. Taking its lead from market analysts such as Innova, Brenntag’s Nutrition team is convinced that this is more than just a transient trend and that the long-term future for immunity products is bright.

“People understand that Covid-19 might not be the end; there might be new variations and new viruses in the future, so it is better if they can fight off these diseases without vaccines or medical intervention,” says Brenntag’s Michiel van Genugten. The products might look different, with emerging ingredients such as adaptogens, postbiotics and beta glucans coming into play, but, as he puts it: “The immunity market will be here to stay.”

Contact us

If you are curious to learn more about our approach towards immunity, get in touch with our Brenntag Food & Nutrition experts. Let's discuss how we can provide you with a tailormade solution for your product.

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Source: * Innova Consumer Survey 2020

Disclaimer: The data contained within this document is intended for information purposes only and is correct to the best of our knowledge. Any recommendations or suggestions are made without any warranty or guarantee. It is the sole responsibility of the user of the products to evaluate for each individual product its suitability for a particular purpose and the compliance with legal and regulatory requirements. In addition, nothing contained within this publication should be construed as a recommendation to use any product in conflict with existing intellectual property rights.

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