Within the functional food segment, food, beverage and supplement makers are eyeing the market for immune system support products as an opportunity. But the complexity of the human immune system and the research necessary to support claims combined with consumer education and the necessity of consuming the products on a regular basis makes the category a challenge.

Ingredients associated with immune system support range from beta-glucans to prebiotics, probiotics, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and amino acids, and products targeting the category run the gamut of foods, beverages and supplements. This past October, Abbott Laboratories, Abbott Park, Ill., introduced Ensure Complete, a shake product for adults that the company is marketing as a source of nutrition that may address muscle, heart and bone health as well as immune system support. The company said prebiotics featuring 3 grams of fiber, vitamins C, E and selenium are the nutrients in the product that support the immune system.

Research is ongoing into the benefits prebiotics and probiotics may have regarding immune system support. Ingredion, Westchester, Ill., offers prebiotic fiber ingredients in fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and galactooligosaccharides (GOS). Purimune, a prebiotic fiber ingredient derived from lactose, contains a minimum of 90% GOS, according to Ingredion. It passes intact through the mouth, stomach and small intestine to the colon, where it is fermented by beneficial bacteria into short-chain fatty acids (S.C.F.A.). The S.C.F.A. promotes digestive and immune health as well as enhances mineral absorption, according to the company.

DuPont Nutrition & Health offers its branded probiotic Howaru Protect that has been shown to support the immune systems of children as well as adults. This past August the company reported the results of a study conducted by Griffith University in Australia that indicated Howaru Protect offers immune system support for adults.

The study recruited 263 randomized healthy, physically active adults who received Howaru Protect or a placebo for 150 days. The health status and the level of physical activity of the volunteers were monitored over the course of the study. The results showed a reduction in the number of days experiencing common cold and flu-associated symptoms, and a trend in the reduction of cold and flu medication use.

Biothera, Eagan, Minn., manufactures and markets the baker’s yeast beta glucan that is branded as Wellmune WGP. The company’s ingredient has been used in a variety of studies to demonstrate the role it may play in immune system support.

In February, for example, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition indicated that moderately to highly stressed women experienced fewer upper respiratory tract infection symptoms and higher energy levels while taking Wellmune WGP. Seventy-seven healthy women between the ages of 38 and 50 were pre-screened for moderate levels of psychological stress given either a placebo or 250 mg of Wellmune WGP daily for 12 weeks.

Ten per cent of the Wellmune group reported upper respiratory tract infection symptoms, which were defined as sore throat, stuffy or runny nose and a cough, compared with 29% for the control group.

Another study funded by Biothera and published on-line by the journal Food Science & Nutrition showed that the Wellmune ingredient may reduce the allergy symptoms experienced by consumers allergic to ragweed. The placebo-controlled, double-blinded study of 48 healthy people who were subjected to high pollen counts demonstrated reductions in overall symptoms and severity; and reduction in allergy-related eye and nasal symptoms.

“Given the important role immune modulation plays in managing symptoms, allergy sufferers who choose foods, beverages and supplements with clinically proven immune support can help ease their discomfort during allergy season,” said Richard Mueller, chief executive officer of Biothera.