As such, companies should work on ingredient-driven innovation when developing new immune supporting products.
This was a key insight derived from a global consumer survey conducted by the FMCG Gurus.
The company was sharing its findings and analysis during a webinar titled “The defence force: Understanding Immunity and developing the right solutions for it” organised by dairy ingredient supplier Friesland Campina.
The survey findings showed that more consumers were able to identify ingredients that could support the immune system, said Mike Hughes, director of Insights at FMCG Gurus.
This was especially the case for lactoferrin – a naturally occurring protein in human breast milk.
According to the survey results, across the globe, three in 10 of the consumers surveyed said they have heard of the ingredient.
The awareness of the ingredient was disproportionately higher in APAC, with the top five countries that have heard of the ingredient coming from the region.
The level of awareness is higher in Indonesia, where 60% of the consumers surveyed said they have heard of the ingredient, followed by China (56%), Korea (54%), Japan (51%), and Australia (39%).
In the Western part of the world, the US has highest awareness of the ingredient, with three in 10 said they have heard of lactoferrin.
“Lactoferrin market is growing across the globe and there is significant opportunity to grow it further,” said Hughes.
This insight is also backed by the finding that nine in 10 APAC consumers are willing to use products that contain lactoferrin. Globally, eight in 10 are willing to use such products.
Globally, lactoferrin is most recognised as an ingredient that could relief cold and flu symptoms amongst consumers. This is the topmost important reason for APAC consumers expressing the willingness to buy lactoferrin products.
Findings showed that across the globe, 61% said they would use products containing lactoferrin when they felt they were getting a cold or illness.
The second most popular reason is to use it as part of a daily health routine (56%), followed by taking it as an energy booster (40%).
In fact, the popularity of lactoferrin is not only seen in adult nutrition, but also in infant and kids nutrition, with companies such as Australia-based Jatenergy using it in infants, middle-aged, and elderly dairy products.
Australian brand Frosty Boy also launched an immune-supporting nutrition beverage containing lactoferrin.
In vivo evidence has shown that lactoferrin is associated with lowering respiratory tract infection in adults, according to Prof Dr Ir. Huub Savelkoul, head, cell biology and immunology group at Wageningen University, who also presented at the webinar.
Aside from lactoferrin, Hughes also pointed out that consumers typically associate protein with a ‘health halo’, due to its association with a variety of health boosting benefits.
Omega-3, on the other hand, is also seen as an immune-supporting ingredient, he added.
“Over the next couple of years, there will be increase demand for ingredient-led claims within the food and drink and supplement industry for ingredients that are associated with a variety of health benefits,” added Prof Savelkoul.
At the same time, companies should also ensure that the ingredients that they are using are credible and transparent, he said.
The survey also found that consumers are hoping to address other health issues while improving their immune system.
Firms could, therefore, develop health products that can improve other health concerns, making them a convenient part of the daily diet as well.
“As a result of looking to improve their immunity level, consumers also want these actions to help to boost a variety of health aspects, such as their cognitive health and their digestive health.
“This pretty much shows how consumers recognise that all aspects of health are interlinked and impact each other and shouldn’t be treated in isolation,” said Hughes.
The survey showed that between Apr and July, 38% of the global consumers said they had sought out functional food and drink products to boost their immune system.
In comparison, only 14% have sought out nutritional supplements.
Hughes said this was because consumers saw functional foods and drinks as more convenient options that could be incorporated into the daily diet.
Basic nutrients also important
An adequate intake of micronutrients and macronutrients is key to a functioning immune system, according to Prof Dr Joost van Neerven, professor of mucosal immunology at Wageningen University.
Also speaking at the webinar, he pointed out that a deficiency of key nutrients could lead to infection and reduced immune responses.
For example, a deficiency in vitamin C, D, zinc, selenium can lead to respiratory infection, while the lack of vitamin B6 and B12 can lead to reduced immune responses.
With the gut microbiota playing a role in the immune system, he said that prebiotics such as the human oligosaccharides (HMOs) were also important nutrients, especially in infants.
“The microbiome of breastfed infants is dominated by bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.
“HMOs are preferentially taken up by the bifidobacteria, in turn, they produce short chain fatty acid (SCFA) metabolites, which lower the gut pH and pathogens cannot thrive in an acidic environment,” he said.
The SCFA can also influence the gut barrier by improving the barrier function, so that pathogens cannot get through the epithelial mucosa.