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Should natural retailers stock functional foods for immunity?

Should natural retailers stock functional foods for immunity?

Two years after H1N1 prompted food companies to add immune-enhancing ingredients into their processed products, research shows consumers still clamor for immunity support in their food and beverages. But natural retailers question whether the products belong in their stores at all.

When shoppers at Cambridge Naturals in Cambridge, Mass., ask for foods to help support immunity, store owner Michael Kanter first points them toward nutritious whole foods and then to his wide selection of medicinal teas and supplements enhanced with immunity-supporting ingredients such as oregano, elderberry and mushrooms.

“I’m not a huge fan of processed functional foods,” he says. “I think some of these products, say a cracker enhanced with proprietary immunity ingredients, go too far. We want to be really careful about what we stock by looking at the marketing, packaging, labeling and, ultimately, who would be consuming these products.”

But while Kanter continues to encourage customers to support their health with whole foods, shoppers elsewhere around the country are loading up on chocolate bars, cookies and beverages that are fortified with immunity ingredients that promise to keep people well.

During the height of the H1N1 virus scare, as consumers increasingly sought processed foods to support health and wellness, manufacturers began incorporating immunity ingredients into finished products. Some emblazoned their packaging with immunity claims—many of which were unsubstantiated. Perhaps the most notorious example was Kellogg’s launch of Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies boxes bannered with the claim: Now helps support your child’s IMMUNITY. Pressure from the Federal Trade Commission led the cereal giant to scrap the claim eventually, but not before potentially thousands of shoppers had been misled.

These events left a sour taste in the mouths of many food-industry experts, regulators and class-action attorneys. Yet research shows that, two years later, consumers aren’t holding a grudge. “Shoppers haven’t been impacted,” says Jeff Hilton, partner and cofounder of Integrated Marketing Group, a Salt Lake City–based natural products marketing firm. “The category is still in that honeymoon phase, and consumers are very open-minded about immunity-enhanced foods.” 

In fact, immunity support was the third-highest benefit sought in food and beverage products by primary grocery shoppers last year, according to research conducted by Harleysville, Pa.-based Natural Marketing Institute. In the study, 51 percent of shoppers said they look for products that “support immune health.” This qualifier was preceded in popularity only by “lowers cholesterol” (52 percent) and “provides heart health” (55 percent). “That’s a big wow,” says Maryellen Molyneaux, NMI president and managing partner. “Immunity is in consumers’ consciousness and in their conversations. It’s a strong category and clearly not going away.”

Still, most functional immunity foods are launched in the mass channel, and naturals retailers may be wondering if these oftentimes highly processed products even belong in their stores. Here’s a closer look at what’s happening in this burgeoning category.

Aging population encourages innovation

Since Wellmune WGP—a patented, yeast-derived immune-supporting ingredient—hit the market in 2007, its sales have more than doubled each year, says Rich Mueller, CEO of Eagan, Minn.-based biotechnology company Biothera, which supplies the ingredient. “That’s driven by the fact that every major manufacturer we talk to has development programs focused on adding immunity enhancement to its foods or beverages.”

In addition to appearing in several supplements, Wellmune WGP is now popping up in juices, cookies, bars, chocolate and soup products. Experts suspect an aging population is a key factor driving the growth of these functional immunity foods. Forty percent of U.S. citizens will be 50 or older by next year, according to NMI data. These shoppers increasingly are turning away from supplements and instead are looking for alternate delivery forms for their wellness products, Hilton says. “Baby boomers are tired of taking pills,” he explains. “Today’s consumers are not only very accepting, but they want foods that can do double duty.”

Suppliers of immunity ingredients previously found only in supplements are getting in on the trend by seeking generally recognized as safe status—a Food and Drug Administration designation that allows a substance to be added to foods and beverages. One such company, Ankeny, Iowa-based Embria Health Sciences, reaffirmed the GRAS status of Epicor, its yeast-derived immune ingredient containing beta-glucans, protein, vitamins and minerals, in 2009. Although the ingredient already had GRAS status, reaffirming it expanded the types of foods and beverages it can be used in. As a result, EpiCor saw increased interest from food manufacturers at the Institute of Food Technologists trade show in June, says Cheryl Sturm, Embria’s director of marketing.  

Misleading claims threaten category

Together, Epicor and Wellmune WGP are backed by more than a dozen clinical trials, which both Mueller and Sturm cite as a key factor in the ingredients’ success. Additionally, the suppliers require manufacturers to use an efficacious dose of the ingredients in finished products. “We often see clinical studies in which the dosing in the study is many times what’s put into a product,” Mueller says. “This will kill your brand quicker than anything.”

Not all manufacturers adhere to strict dosing guidelines, however. Within the functional food and beverage world, it’s common practice to use a less-than-efficacious amount of an ingredient in a finished product in order to promote its functional properties on the label and offer it at a price premium. The FDA recently began cracking down on such misleading food claims. In March 2010, the agency sent 17 food manufacturers warning letters implicating 22 different functional food and beverage products for violating federal law.

Reprimanded companies included Nestlé, for its Juicy Juice beverages, which it claimed were made from 100 percent juice, while the label read flavored juice blend from concentrate with other natural flavors and added ingredients. Little Falls, N.Y.-based green-tea manufacturer Salada was warned in a separate letter to stop claiming that green tea is scientifically shown to inhibit cancer.

The warnings were followed by an open letter to food and beverage manufacturers from FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who highlighted the importance of being honest with consumers. “Today, ready access to reliable information about the calorie and nutrient content of food is even more important, given the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases in the United States,” she wrote.

Still, just this past summer, the FTC ordered Nestlé to stop making immunity claims on its Boost Kid Essentials drink, which is touted as a health beverage but contains approximately 5 teaspoons of sugar per 8-ounce serving. “Nestlé’s claims that its probiotic product would prevent kids from getting sick or missing school just didn’t stand up to scrutiny,” David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a release.

Future uncertain in naturals

Although deceptive claims may be one reason immunity foods aren’t penetrating the natural channel, the more obvious answer is a lack of available products. Of the handful of foods fortified with Wellmune WGP, only one—an organic, fair trade–certified lemon-ginger bar made by Boise, Idaho-based Good Cacao—also adheres to additional quality markers, such as organic or local ingredients, no artificial colors and fair trade certification, that are sought out by naturals shoppers.

The developers of these products aren’t interested in courting naturals shoppers, posits Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights, a Brattleboro, Vt.-based consulting company for the natural retail channel. “When you’re dealing with the mass market, even if you have only a 1 percent share, that’s tens of millions of dollars,” he says. “Your product doesn’t have to be a blockbuster winner that’s in every pantry; all you need to capture is a small share. Savvy manufacturers realize this.”

But not everyone agrees that “functional” won’t eventually try to work its way into “natural.”

“We’ll continue to see manufacturers taking foods that are part of our everyday lifestyle—cereals, bars, milk—and incorporating functional elements,” says Hilton, adding that functional immunity products will “certainly” be launched specifically for the natural channel.

Meanwhile, natural products retailers such as Kanter are taking a wait-and-see approach. “If one of these immunity-enhancing products fits our store’s strict criteria, I’d consider it,” he says. “But I have yet to see one that would address our store’s and customers’ needs.”

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