Natural Foods Merchandiser

Consumers seek cold and flu relief; Are your shelves ready?

Achoo. It’s cold and flu season again. Which nutritional supplements will your customers reach for?

Many will seek out those tried-and-true immune boosters: vitamins A and C, zinc, and echinacea. Others will look for relief in the form of Oscillococcinum or other homeopathic remedies.

Consumer focus groups state that people want less-invasive approaches to medicine, in the form of supplements that work with the body – and with few side effects, says Jeff Hilton, a cofounder of Integrated Marketing Group. Hilton has more than 18 years of experience in the natural products industry.

Immune-focused supplements can be the gateway products that bring the uninitiated through the doors of health food stores, he says.

Three different types of consumers are seeking immunity-focused supplements, according to Hilton. The first group is worried about swine flu and other urgent topical issues, a second group wants a buffer against an all-too-polluted environment, and a third sees immune-system balance as part of daily life and wishes to maintain good health day in and out.

For those looking for traditional herbs used for anti-viral purposes, - goldenseal, licorice, astragalus and cat's claw are great- , says Dr. Darin Ingels, a naturopathic physician specializing in immune disorders at New England Family Health Associates in Southport, Conn.

“Most people still seem to gravitate toward natural treatments,” Ingels says, noting that consumers are often frustrated by conventional offerings that mainly focus on symptomatic relief. “Doctors tell patients with the flu to rest, get plenty of fluids and ride it out,” Ingels says.

Naturopaths and other natural health professionals are also promoting simple, preventative ingredients in the war against illness, alongside the traditional C.

“Mushrooms can be quite helpful in supporting immunity,” says Paul Anderson, N.D., core faculty member at the naturopathic college Bastyr University in Seattle. Mushrooms contain alkaloids that balance immune response, ensuring a quicker response to infection. Anderson recommends shiitake mushrooms, or extracts for less-tasty mushrooms such as reishi or maitake.

Anderson also recommends prebiotics, which promote the growth of beneficial gastrointestinal bacteria, and may help prevent GI symptoms that can accompany illness. Food sources include whole grains, greens, fruits and legumes and cultured products like yogurt and tempeh. Prebiotic supplements are also available.

Other helpful supplements, according to Anderson, include black elder extract (sambucus syrup) and vitamins B and D. Once illness begins, the body uses up stored B and D in the fight- and if the individual is stressed, storage is already depleted before illness even begins, leaving the body less able to battle bugs efficiently.

But woe to any supplement manufacturer (or retailer) making flu-fighting claims. Food and Drug Administration regulations prohibit dietary supplement manufacturers from making any labeling claim about the diagnosis, mitigation, treatment or cure of a disease. In 2008 and 2009, Airborne Health paid out over $30 million in fines to consumer-interest groups and federal and state regulators for stating that the company’s effervescent tablets fought germs and reduced the severity of colds.

The FDA and Federal Trade Commission have signaled a voracious appetite for look-a-like products. In anticiapation of the H1N1 flu season, the FDA is sending out warning letters to supplement manufacturers and has published a Fraudulent H1N1 Influenza Products List.

There’s “zero tolerance” for claims of protection against H1N1 flu, says Joel Rothman, an attorney who advises nutritional and dietary supplement companies; his blog has hundreds of subscribers in the nutritional supplement and retail industry.

Some supplements are successfully walking the fine line. Embria Health Sciences is testing its new EpiCor product with placebo-controlled trials, then publishing results in journals like Urologic Nursing and Nutrition Research. EpiCor, a fermented product derived from baker’s yeast, increases salivary immunoglobulin antibodies and the natural activity of killer cells (lymphocytes), according to the company’s research.

“Ultimately, you have to have science to back up what you’re saying,” Hilton says. “The empirical science becomes more important as time goes on and as products are being questioned.”

On retail shelves, new products will sit near traditional standbys for cold- and flu-ridden consumers, at least for the time being. “Vitamin C is like a warm blanket,” Hilton says, in the minds of shoppers – reliable, and what mom prescribed for a cold.

Don’t hoist a sign declaring flu-fighting products
“Retailers need to be careful because they could be subject to FDA inspection,” Rothman says. “They need to be smart about these things, and not accept what they’re being told by a manufacturer as gospel.” Although many supplements producers are modifying their labels in the wake of the Airborne fallout, the FTC published a document to help educate manufacturers (and by extension, retailers) about undertaking studies and making claims.

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