Although you can't talk about the H1N1 ('swine flu') virus when talking about your dietary supplement or functional product, you can't help but say that the pandemic has helped the cause of well-known natural ingredients. (We can say that, right?)
Case in point is sales, compiled by SPINS, for echinacea and elderberry. In both cases, product sales traditionally bottom out for the year in July or August, and hit a peak in February. This has always been the case, and it tracks perfectly with how consumers tend to think about immune insults.
But all that changed in May 2009 — exactly when the term 'swine flu' first made its appearance in the mass consciousness. For the better-known echinacea, sales spiked 31 per cent in May. For elderberry, it was a 20 per cent spike.
"There are actually a number of categories starting to focus more heavily on immunity," says Cheryl Sturm, director of marketing for Embria Health Sciences, which markets Epicor as an immune-balancing ingredient. "While yoghurts may have been the most visible in recent years, many beverages are now touting their immune-supporting ingredients."
The question is, will it last? The Obama administration's FDA and FTC are clearly being more aggressive against companies making such claims. And, in September 2009, Dannon received an out-of-court slapdown of its 'immunity' marketing on some functional-yoghurt varieties.
Apart from commodity ingredients purported to help the immune system — probiotics in general, and vitamins C and D come to mind — companies are diligently conducting research and development into a range of products that are shown to not merely jazz up the immune response but rather to keep the immune system in greater balance.
Embria's Epicor is one such brand. Another is Biothera's Wellmune WGP. It won the 2005 NutrAward at Nutracon for best new product, the 2007 IFT Food Expo Innovation Award, as well as the 2009 Frost & Sullivan Excellence in Research Award.
"We are pleased to receive the Frost & Sullivan award, which recognises Biothera's dedication and commitment to rigorous scientific research on the real health benefits of Wellmune WGP," says Richard Mueller, Biothera's chief executive officer. "Biothera is redefining the immune-health category with completely natural products that are backed by credible science and that do not overstimulate the immune system."