Immunity sector benefits from H1N1 hangover

Immunity sector benefits from H1N1 hangover

While the two immune-ingredient kings continue to be echinacea and probiotics, elderberry and beta-glucan are making strong appearances one year after the H1N1 virus was declared a global pandemic.

A little more than year after the World Health Organization declared the H1N1 virus a global pandemic in June 2009, consumers continue to take the immunity supplements category seriously.

According to SPINS, which tracks finished product sales in the natural and food/drug/mass-market channels (FDM), sales of products touted for "deep immune support" rose 14.6 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively, in the 52 weeks ending Aug. 7.

The two immune-ingredient kings continue to be echinacea and probiotics. Rightfully, probiotics snagged $821.23 million in sales in the FDM channel, a 33.2 percent increase over the previous year, plus another $190.5 million among natural channel shoppers, a 15.3 percent increase, said SPINS.

Echinacea ingredient sales registered a respectable $22.42 million in FDM, an 11 percent increase over the previous year, and another $9.92 million in the natural channel, a 10.3 percent increase.


In its report, "Probiotics, A Global Strategic Business Report," Global Industry Analysts predicted the global probiotics market will reach $29 billion by 2015. Europe is the largest and fastest-growing market, with Germany and the UK accounting for 45 percent of the European market. Japan is the second-largest region.

One company long poised to capitalize on this trend is Chr Hansen. Hundreds of studies dating as far back as 1986 have been conducted on the Danish company’s probiotic strains.

In September, yet another study was published in the British Journal of Nutrition, which showed that daily supplementation of the company’s BB-12 strain may significantly reduce the occurrence of respiratory infections among newborn infants.

"While some research has been conducted on respiratory tract infections in children, very little research has been done within this indication focusing on infants below the age of one year," said Birgit Michelsen, director of scientific affairs, health and nutrition division of Chr. Hansen.

Another long-time leader in the category is Institut Rosell-Lallemand of Montreal, the maker of ProbioKid. A new study has found that the ingredient’s unique combination of three proprietary probiotic strains (two bifidobacteria and a lactobacillus) and the prebiotic fiber FOS can reduce infectious events in children by 25 percent during the winter period, compared to placebo. The results were presented at the annual meeting of the European Respiratory Society in September. 

Meanwhile, in August, Finnish dairy and ingredients supplier Valio lodged an immunity health claim application with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for its probiotic strain, Lactobacillus GG. The dossier for an article 13.5 claim proposes: "Lactobacillus GG improves the body’s resistance."

Manufacturers across the probiotic world are holding their breath to see what happens at the EFSA’s next gut and health immunity workshop, scheduled for Dec. 2. So far, the authority has rejected 284 article 13.1 probiotic health claim submissions since October 2009.


Products containing antiviral elderberry were the fastest-growing immunity products in the past year. According to SPINS, natural-channel shoppers pushed elderberry product sales up nearly 53 percent over the previous year, to $7.48 million.

Elderberry’s growing esteem is not without good reason. Two published studies in 2009 showed that the flavonoids in elderberry could have an effect on H1N1 and HIV infections, said Denis Charlebois, Ph.D., a founding member of the North American Elderberry Alliance.

The alliance was formed in 2008 to study elderberry’s health benefits. Charlebois has been researching the botanical since 2003 with the Horticulture Research and Development Center, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, in Quebec.

One study showed that elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro.1 The study identified the chemical components that bind directly to the virus.

"Using methods, technologies and procedures that are standard in the pharmaceutical industry and new technologies developed by us, we were able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the elderberry extract in inhibiting viral entry into target cells and effectively blocking its ability to reproduce," explained Randall Alberte, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of the Herbal Sciences Group and one of the study’s authors.

The second study showed that optimized elderberry, green tea and cinnamon extracts rich in certain flavonoid compounds blocked HIV-1 entry and infection in GHOST cells.2

"[This suggests that] these types of botanical extracts could provide a starting point for the development of possible safe and reliable co-therapies for HIV-1 positive individuals, as well as for the identification of new small molecules as leading drug candidates for HIV-1 therapeutics and microbicides," the research team concluded.

While these papers deal with Sambucus nigra (European elderberry), the information they contained is likely to be also valid for Sambucus canadensis (American elderberry), Charlebois explained.

"The Sambucus genus has been used for centuries wherever these plants grow. S. williamsii and S. ebulus have also been studied for their medicinal properties," he said. "The health potential of S. canadensis alone or in combination with other ingredients is gaining in popularity with the release of new products in the Canada and U.S."

In recent years, both suppliers and finished-product companies specializing in elderberries have begun to crop up. Examples include Suro, an organic food company founded in Quebec in 2004 and now selling elderberry syrups, jellies, vinaigrettes and salves; and Eldertide Farm, a certified-organic grower of elderberries founded in Maine in 2007, which also has a finished-product division.

Other elderberry suppliers include:

  • Health Sciences Group, a Florida- and Singapore-based company whose elderberry extract was used in the H1N1 study.
  • BI Nutraceuticals, which added a 4:1 ratio elderberry extract to its line in 2009. The ingredient is available in a water-soluble formulation for use in beverage applications.
  • Proprietary Nutritionals, which launched its Berry-Max line of fruit concentrates in 2008; these included an elderberry ingredient called Elder-Max. The suite of ingredients is known for its patented Bio-Shield system, which safely delivers the bioactives through the digestive system.


One of the most well-researched immunity ingredients is Wellmune WGP, made by Minnesota biotech company Biothera. Derived from a proprietary strain of yeast, the ingredient engages and directs neutrophils to more quickly find and kill foreign challenges.

In the past 16 months, five double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials have shown the immunity benefits in different population groups. The most recent presentation on Oct. 7 at the Annual Meeting of the American College of Nutrition, examined 77 healthy women given either placebo or 250mg of Wellmune WGP daily for 12 weeks. Only 10 percent of the Wellmune group reported upper respiratory-tract infection symptoms (sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, and cough) compared with 29 percent for the control group.

"These are important findings for the millions of ‘stressed’ women around the world," said Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., research director at Supplement Watch and lead investigator on the study. "This study shows that while daily stressors can ‘wear down’ immune-system function, supplementing with Wellmune WGP can bolster those natural defenses and help stressed women feel and perform at their best." 

In the past year, Wellmune WGP has been introduced in 10 countries from Australia to Canada, bringing its global reach to 30 countries worldwide. The United States, Europe and Asia each contribute approximately 25 percent of the ingredient’s revenues.

In the U.S., recent product launches include Fuze Defensify, made by Fuze, a division of the Coca-Cola company; MonaVie, a blend of 19 fruits and Wellmune; and Dr. Sears Family Essentials’ Immune Plus Fruit Chews. 

"Biothera doubled its sales in 2009, and we are on track to more than double our sales again in 2010," said Richard Mueller, Biothera president and chief executive officer. "We expect to more than double our sales annually for the next several years."

Because there are no temperature, pressure or other food-processing variables that degrade the activity of Wellmune WGP, its application potential is vast. The ingredient is currently in product development with customers in every food and beverage category, Mueller said. 

The ingredient has been awarded both the Institute of Food Technologist Innovation Award, as well as the Frost & Sullivan Excellence in Research Award.

1. Fink, R. C., Roschek, B. and Alberte, R. S. 2009. HIV type-1 entry inhibitors with a new mode of action. Antiviral Chemistry & Chemotherapy 19:243-255.

2. Roschek Jr, B., Fink, R. C., McMichael, M. D., Li, D. and Alberte, R. S. 2009. Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro. Phytochemistry 70(10):1255-1261.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.