It may be hard to imagine now—with the omicron variant laying waste to travel plans and sending us back behind masks yet again—but immunity as a wellness concern had been buzzing since long before anyone knew what SARS-CoV-2 was.

As Cashtyn Lovan, marketing manager, Cargill, Minneapolis, puts it, “Even prior to 2019, consumers were taking a more active role in their health and wellness—and because it’s easy to understand that our immune systems make a big impact on how healthy we feel, immune health has trended upward alongside the need to manage overall health and wellness.”

The pandemic merely gave that trend a shot in the arm.

In so doing, it’s also given a boost to foods that, either through fortification or by their very nature, promise to boost our immune systems, as well. And that’s opened up opportunities for snack and bakery brands to create items that’re right in tune with all things immune.


Immunity interest

Of course, periodic bursts of immunity interest have been regular episodes in the wellness space.

For example, notes Anke Sentko, vice president regulatory affairs and nutrition communication, Beneo, Parsippany, NJ, “Immune health has typically been a very seasonal concern—notably around the classic flu season.” Beyond that, she says, it’s mainly been older consumers and those in vulnerable groups who’ve consistently paid the most attention to their body’s defenses.

“But COVID-19 changed all that,” she continues. “The benefits of a robust immune system have become an ongoing topic of interest across age groups and demographics.”

The International Food Information Council (IFIC), Washington, D.C., has been tracking that interest all along, and as Ali Webster, Ph.D., R.D., the group’s director of research and nutrition communications, notes, an April 2021 IFIC survey found that among respondents who cited immune health as a top priority, nearly 75% claimed that it’d become even more important since the pandemic’s outset.

Lovan points to similar findings from Innova Market Insights to the effect that not only did global concern around immune health grow during the pandemic; the most significant increase in interest occurred among Millennials and younger Gen Xers aged 36 to 45—“illustrating,” she says, “the long-term potential for products offering immune-health benefits.”


Defensive eating

“Perhaps most importantly,” Lovan continues, “consumers are taking action.” According to FMCG Gurus, 7 in 10 global consumers have made changes to their diets and lifestyles to improve immunity, she says. Also, Nielsen retailer sales data reveal that products with immune claims showed a 2019–2020 CAGR of 15%.

And that’s where snack and bakery brands come in.

Consider that IFIC’s most recent survey, conducted in December 2021, found 57% of respondents interested in trying foods or beverages that support immune health, Webster notes. What’s more, she says, results of the group’s 2021 “Food & Health Survey” show one in four looking for immune benefits from food, with two-thirds interested in learning how foods and nutrients affect immune health.

All of which makes sense to Sentko. “More often,” she says, “people are aware that the right food choices make the difference for a well-functioning immune system, and they see a healthy diet as a basic step toward supporting their inner defenses.”

In short, she concludes, “What we eat matters.” And though the public was warming up to that truism even before COVID changed everything, “awareness of preventive eating has only sharpened” in the years since, she continues. “And the emphasis has been on strengthening the immune system.”


A fortified fit

Consumers have plenty of options for leveraging nutrition toward better immunity, but Cargill focus groups suggest that most “try to get the nutrients they need first through food, and then fill the gaps with supplements,” Lovan says.

Fortified foods, she points out, fall into that middle area between whole foods and supplements. “Consumers embrace them because they simplify their lives: They let them get the health benefits they want—like immune health—through the foods they already eat.”

And arguably, snacks and baked do that even better than most. “We see snacking as a logical vehicle for immune health,” says Marilyn Stieve, senior product manager, Glanbia Nutritionals, Chicago. “The trend toward health-focused snacking is growing as consumers become more aware of what they eat. And at the same time, the opportunity for snacking occasions has increased during COVID.”

Of course, not all snacks or baked goods will click with consumers as appropriate applications for immune benefits—chocolate-covered churros, perhaps, or screaming-hot cheesy puffs. But while such indulgences may best be left as just that—and indulgence—breads, bars and cereal snacks “are all good vehicles for immune support,” says Lovan.

And the reason is obvious, says Lovan. “Consumers already expect these products to bring a nutritional edge.”


Protein power

Stieve agrees. “Choosing a product with a well-defined healthy halo—such as a nutrition bar or trail mix—is important when developing immunity platforms,” she says. “And with snack and bakery items, it’s important not just to market specifically around the immunity piece, but also to ensure that the entire application is appealing from a health-and-wellness standpoint, and is mindful of sugar, fat, and protein content.”

In fact, she points to recent Hartman Group data showing that 74% of consumers identify protein as an immune-support nutrient—an association that Stieve’s witnessed consumers make, herself.

“We definitely see consumers in the snacking sector interested in protein fortification,” says Stieve, “as they understand protein’s health benefits—including supporting a healthy immune system. Dairy proteins, in particular, are viable immune-associated ingredients with success in snack-bar, extruded-snack and baked-good formulations, such as cookies, and we offer a full line of functional and extruded proteins for use in these applications.”


‘Posting’ gains

Ingredients like next-generation proteins have proven both popular and practical in immune-focused formulations. However, “not every immune-support ingredient survives the realities of food processing,” Lovan points out.

Probiotics are a classic example. “They’re inherently less stable than the metabolites they produce because they must remain alive from processing and packaging until they reach the consumer’s gut to start producing their health-benefiting components,” Lovan explains.

“In contrast,” she continues, “postbiotics”—products of probiotic metabolism—“are produced through fermentation outside the body, under highly controlled conditions.” Because they’re not living organisms, they’re a lot easier to work with in formulation and production.

Angela Bonnema, senior scientist at Cargill, notes that the robust thermal, pH and pressure stability of the company’s EpiCor postbiotic “helps it stand up to modern food processing,” thus making it “well suited to a range of snack and bakery applications.”

Its low use rate of roughly 500 mg per serving is another asset—although such low levels make thorough dispersion a must for effective dosing, says Bonnema. And though its “rich brown color” might stand out in paler products, it’ll blend right into a golden-brown bar or muffin. “Its warm flavor pairs well with chocolate, vanilla, and dark red fruits.”

Lovan notes that more than a dozen published studies now stand behind EpiCor’s benefits around gut, immune and both year-round and seasonal nasal health. Even better, consumers are catching on. “According to Brandwatch,” she says, online mentions of postbiotics in media, blogs, and more increased by almost 1,400% from January 2020 to June 2021, compared to the previous period. We believe this awareness will only grow.”


Go with your gut

As exciting as postbiotics may be, Sentko implores formulators not to forget prebiotics when formulating immune-boosting snack and bakery items. “Bearing in mind that 70% of the inner defense system is located in the gut, nutrition that benefits the gut and its microbiome also supports immunity,” she says (Nutrients, March 2020).

Given that prebiotic inulin and oligofructose support a healthy microbiota, make the gut environment less hospitable for pathogens, and strengthen the gut’s barrier function, she recommends formulating with them (International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, June 2017).

Their benefits can be wide-ranging, Sentko insists. For example, she cites one randomized controlled trial involving more than 200 kindergarten children which showed that when those children consumed prebiotic chicory-root fiber daily for six months, they experienced fewer medically confirmed febrile infections and saw a significant increase in intestinal bifidobacteria populations (Journal of Nutrition, August 2018).

“In addition,” Sentko continues, “it was shown that with antibiotic therapy and simultaneous prebiotic fiber intake, the usual antibiotic-related disturbance of the intestinal flora dropped off, too, and the number of bifidobacteria was significantly higher than in the control group.”


Space for both

Sounds like a great feature to add to Junior’s lunchbox. But it doesn’t settle the question of whether fortified snacks and baked goods are superior options to whole foods when the goal is building better immunity.

After all, Webster points out, “Eating a well-balanced, healthy diet allows our immune systems to be their best selves. Products touted as ‘superfoods’ don’t do this any better than regular-old fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and sources of healthy fats and protein—which are also often more accessible and affordable.”

That said, the question of whether to choose whole or fortified foods may not be an either/or proposition, but more of a yes/and one. That’s certainly Lovan’s opinion. “When it comes down to what’ll win out—whole foods or fortified foods—I believe there’s space for both,” she says. “Consumers will start whole, then used fortified foods like snacks and baked goods, or even supplements, to fill the gaps.”

And “no matter the nutritional benefit,” she adds, “snacks and baked goods must meet consumers’ sensory expectations. As is true with most foods and beverages today, taste is still king.”

And will immunity remain popular? “Absolutely,” says Max Maxwell, market insights manager at Glanbia Nutritionals. “Staying health, preventing susceptibility to viruses and staying fitter longer—both mentally and physically—will continue to attract attention. Supporting a strong immune system is essential to accomplishing these goals.”