CHICAGO Many new phrases have entered the mainstream vernacular since the pandemic began, like curbside pickup, supply chain and contactless payment. But for many, immune health has led the conversation. In response to growing interest in this topic, food and beverage formulators have been exploring ingredient options available to create products that support immune health in order to assist consumers with their health and wellness journey.

“The last two years have proven challenging for consumers to feel in control of their health,” said Becca Henrickson, marketing manager of food cultures and enzymes, Chr. Hansen, Inc., Milwaukee. “One thing we can control is our diet, and because of this consumers have increased their own knowledge on the subject and seek foods that have an association with immune health.”

Julie Lemahieu, wellness and immune health market manager, Gnosis by Lesaffre, Lille, France, added, “Our bodies experience many strains every day. Whether they are infections, diseases or oxidative, it’s critical that we arm our bodies with the tools it needs to fight these adversaries. A healthy immune system is the key to keeping us healthy every day. The pandemic has put this in the spotlight like never before.”

The body of evidence on the role of nutrition in immune health continues to evolve. It’s an emerging discipline in the area of infectious disease research and will continue to fuel ingredient technology innovation.

“We’re learning more about the immunomodulatory properties of varied ingredients,” said John Quilter, vice president global portfolio, proactive health, Kerry, Beloit, Wis. “As the body of research grows, so does consumer demand for immune health products backed by high-quality science.”

In many cases, beneficial bacteria, namely those recognized as probiotics, are key to a healthy immune system. It is all about the bacteria, the compounds that fuel their proliferation, the metabolites they produce and a host of other dietary substances that encourage these processes, among other immunity supporting functions.

“One of the biggest developments in this field is our growing understanding of the link between the microbiome, gut health and our immune system,” said Justin Green, director of scientific affairs, health technologies, Cargill, Minneapolis. “Today, we know the gut is home to more immune cells than anywhere else in the body, more than 70% of our immune cells reside in the gut.”

The gastrointestinal tract is tasked with keeping toxic molecules out of the body and defending against pathogenic organisms, while still allowing nutrients in and enabling good bacteria to thrive. That’s a big job. An improved understanding of the biochemical pathways shows dietary intake of foods and supplements helps create a robust, discriminating, dynamic and balanced immune system.

“Unlike the cells in the rest of the body, which are nourished via the blood, immune cells in the gut can also be fed by the beneficial bacteria that reside in the gut,” Mr. Green said. “They provide energy directly to the cells of the gut lining, including immune cells.”

This is the basis of the role fermented foods have in immune health. Products such as yogurt and kombucha already contain live bacteria and are a natural fit for the addition of probiotics. However, other applications with a health halo also make sense to consumers.

Consumers in the United States are interested in seeing probiotics in a range of food categories, everything from cheese to fermented plant bases, according to Chr. Hansen’s 2021 probiotic survey.

“Along with probiotics, our study also found that 68% of consumers associate vitamin C with boosting immunity, and another 52% associate vitamin D with the same benefit,” Ms. Henrickson said.

Chr. Hansen offers clinically documented Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium probiotic strains. Both are associated with immune defense support in children and adults.

For shelf-stable and heat-processed applications, there are a growing number of probiotics available for sensitive systems. Kerry markets a spore-forming probiotic supported by more than 25 published papers. It has been shown to support immune health as well as delivering benefits in areas like digestive health and protein absorption, according to the company.

Gnosis’ strain of Bacillus subtilis has been clinically proven to support the immune system. The process-stable probiotic is suitable for dietary supplements and functional foods.

Postbiotics are a new category of functional ingredients. They do away with the need to add probiotics by being the healthy metabolites that the microbiome produces, the compounds that possess the actual health benefit. Compounds include an array of enzymes, peptides, organic acids, fatty acids and more.

“This has big ramifications for food and beverage product development, as postbiotics are inherently easier to keep stable during processing and storage as they do not need to be kept alive,” Mr. Green said. “Our postbiotic ingredient is made using baker’s yeast that goes through a natural fermentation process, which creates a unique fingerprint of metabolites.”

Gnosis also offers a range of nutritional yeasts known for their immune health benefits, from selenium-enriched yeast to yeast with zinc or B-vitamins. The company’s latest offering is a nutritional yeast with nutrients and is a source of zinc and fibers, including yeast beta glucans and proteins.

An array of nutritional interventions is recognized for improving quality of life, often by optimizing the performance of the immune system. Interventions include compounds with antioxidant function, as well as vitamins, minerals and varied plant extracts. Think aloe, curcumin, elderberry and ginseng. These compounds are associated with changes in immune response to infection.

“Responses are accelerated,” said Ruud Albers, co-founder, NutriLeads, Wageningen, The Netherlands. “They help curb the infection.”

A 2020 literature review showed some beta-glucans may “train” the body’s immune cells to react effectively when a pathogen is detected.

“This newly recognized phenomenon occurs when innate immune cells encounter specific pieces of microbes — living or non-living — causing the cells to adopt an effective response to future threats,” Mr. Quilter said.

Brenda Fonseca, global technical services lead, Kemin, Des Moines, Iowa, added, “Our beta-glucan offers triple-action protection with nature’s immune system support. First, it primes the key immune cells by triggering the release of signaling molecules. Second it can fuel healthy gut bacteria by supporting the growth of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Third, and most importantly, it protects intestinal barrier integrity or the physical barrier of the gastrointestinal tract, which is essential for both digestive and immune health.”

Glanbia Nutritionals, Chicago, has several bioactive dairy-derived ingredients associated with immune support. Lactoferrin is an iron-binding milk protein that supports increases in anti-inflammatory factors in the body while reducing pro-inflammatory factors.

Catherine Ward, product strategic manager of bioactives at Glanbia, said, “We have a concentrated whey protein produced using our selective transfer membrane system, which concentrates whey components such as lactoferrin and immunoglobulins for supporting immunity and general health.”

Immunoglobulins are specialized proteins that play a role in immunity. They function as natural antibiotics against pathogens.

“There is a strong relationship between various essential nutrients and immune system function,” said Eric Ciappio, strategic development manager of nutrition science, Balchem, St. Louis. “Zinc, for example, supports the activity of nearly 100 different enzymes in the body, and overall zinc status is strongly linked to immune function. Intervention trials in humans show that supplementing zinc can decrease markers of oxidative stress, increase the expression of key immune cell signaling molecule and can improve clinical markers of immune health.

“Selenium is another mineral commonly associated with immunity. Selenium is an essential mineral that supports a specific type of protein known as a selenoprotein. These selenoproteins help to defend against oxidative stress, regulate thyroid function and support the metabolism of other nutrients classically associated with immune function, such as vitamin C.”

Recent research has helped to validate centuries of traditional reliance on berries and explain how they offer multiple angles of strong support within the immune category.

Elderberry, specifically, is recognized as a healing plant-based ingredient.

“In the lab, European black elderberry has demonstrated immunomodulatory activity to directly stimulate the body’s immune system,” said Leslie Gallo, president, Artemis International, Fort Wayne, Ind. “Additionally, a class of bioactive compounds called anthocyanins in elderberry have been shown to exhibit direct antiviral effects that keep viruses like influenza from replicating.”

Elderberry also has been shown to demonstrate prebiotic activity, which helps support a healthy balance of microflora in the gut.

“For anyone formulating immune health products via gut health, we offer an organic elderberry-cranberry prebiotic blend, as well as a berry blend, which is an ingredient containing a mixture of berry extracts that target immune health from multiple directions,” Ms. Gallo said. “The immune blend combines the power of elderberry with aronia berry and black currant, both of which have preliminary antiviral and immunomodulatory activities of their own.

“Aronia berry adds an additional layer of functionality because it has studied cardiovascular benefits, including reducing cholesterol and systolic blood pressure.”