Potential for Immunity Supporting Food & Supplements in China
07 Jul 2020
Are immunity claims a bigger opportunity for supplements or food & beverage in China?
As China emerges from COVID-19, one question is at the front of our minds. How has this pandemic changed consumer food & beverage consumption? Or more importantly, which of these changes will have long lasting effects that need to be addressed by innovation?
Chinese consumers traditionally view food as medicine, so at the height of the pandemic Fonterra's China Sales Director Tony Liu noted “There has been a growing demand for food with immunity claims, and in turn immunity supporting ingredients. For us this has meant an increased interest in probiotics and whey proteins, with customers asking about immunoglobulins and lactoferrin”.
Will Shen notes the application of these ingredients are not limited to food so also appeal to vitamins & dietary supplements (VDS) players.
For a period, vitamins were sold out in China, so customers were looking for other scientifically proven ingredients for supplements to provide new or unique immunity stories.
Will Shen | Business Manager, Sports & Active Lifestyle (Shanghai)
So, who is set to benefit most from heightened interest in immunity? Food and beverage brands reformulating their ingredients, or VDS players?
NZMP reached out to our research partners Mintel to get their perspective. Michelle Teodoro, Associate Director of Food Science & Nutrition and former dietician, provides her insights on China.
Q: In the foreseeable future, do you think Chinese consumers will have a preference for ‘Food & Beverage’ or VDS for immunity support?
The overall VDS market in China is has been experiencing rapid growth since 2018. We expect stable growth to continue over the next few years at roughly 8-10%.
In the short term, generalized concerns around immune health have led to stockpiling of micronutrient supplements, such as Vitamin C. This is likely to continue as consumers use it as a way to deal with managing the uncertainty they face.
VDS that offer immunity benefits like probiotics will gain traction, as people look for ways to protect themselves from a second wave or to support their immune system for ongoing protection.
Of consumers aged 20-49 in China believe probiotics can boost immunity.
Of consumers aged 50-74 are interested in foods that could improve the immune system.
VDS will continue being the first choice amongst specific types of consumers, such as females aged 30-59, consumers with higher income and higher education level. VDS brands should focus on building sustainable relationships with these target consumer groups to increase product loyalty.
There is also the opportunity for VDS brands in the healthy ageing space, as consumers have become more aware of the importance of preventative health solutions.
However, it should be noted that for mass consumers, ensuring a balanced daily nutrition intake takes precedence over the active usage of supplements. This could be driven by social perceptions around nutrient absorption efficiency, as 70% of Chinese consumers agree that nutrients sourced from food are better absorbed than from supplements.
VDS brands could address this by communicating with mass consumers on the effectiveness of their ingredients (i.e. evidence for absorption effectiveness) or turn to innovating functional food & drinks.
Q: What kinds of ingredients are trending when it comes to making immunity claims? Can you give us some examples?
- Firstly there are Prebiotics, which have the potential to support gut health and thereby boost immune response.
An example from Asia is Jeanne & Jamie's Recipes Digestives Biscuits & Crackers. These are enriched with prebiotic inulin, which the brand claims can help the body absorb more nutrients and boost the immune system.
- Secondly, there are Probiotics. It is important to note that only selected probiotics have been clinically proven to support immune health.
There is still lots of ongoing research to explore the roles different probiotics may have in supporting the body's defence system. Strong interest in probiotics around COVID-19 might be linked to recent studies that have looked at how combinations of probiotics might reduce the incidence of upper respiratory infections.
A more unusual format that I’ve seen probiotics added to are chips, such as Luke's Organic-Bio Probiotic Sprouted Grain and Seed Tortilla Chips from the UK, which are promoted for digestive and immune health.
- Thirdly there are Botanicals such as ginger, camu-camu, elderberry and medicinal mushroom.
Botanicals appeal due to their natural immunity supporting properties whilst providing adults with sophisticated flavours. Brands could consider expanding into botanicals by taking inspiration from traditional and ancient medicine. This allows products to be perceived as more natural and holistic.
An interesting product using botanicals is Wolo Protein WanderBar for frequent flyers, from the US. These bars include a blend of turmeric, vitamin C and zinc to boost travellers’ immune systems. They are also high in protein (including whey).
- Fourthly, immunity products are calling out micronutrients - especially where these are natural attributes of ingredients.
Q: Do you have any advice to brands looking to innovate using these ingredients?
Immunity is still an untapped opportunity for probiotic food, drink and supplement products. Brands can bring something unique to the market by using different combinations of ingredients to strengthen positioning. For instance, pairing probiotics with proven immune-boosting nutrients like zinc, protein and vitamin C & D.
An example of this is the refrigerated snack bites from Pact Foods in the US, which contain probiotics, turmeric, matcha and collagen.
Brands should also remember to be responsible in their marketing. Immunity is complex, so brands could attempt to educate consumers about more scientific elements of their products such as probiotic strains. This would help people understand how these ingredients support specific aspects of immune health.
Looking forward, brands should also keep an eye on emerging ingredients like postbiotics and parabiotics which could offer support for the immune system via the gut.
Q: Probiotics are predominantly taken via VDS. Do you think probiotics have potential in food and beverage?
Yes. The Chinese government recently put forward statements saying probiotics are good for health and help with immunity. This has supported the popularity of probiotics in China, which has begun trending in categories beyond supplements, such as snacks & bakery.
Although probiotic foods & beverages targeting immunity are still niche, there is potential for this to grow as the number of global snack launches with immunity claim increased 59% between April 2019 and March 2020, compared to last year.
So overall innovation seems to be shifting away from VDS to food and drink. Baby food, dairy and juice categories still lead the number of launches with an immunity claim, but snacks show the strongest growth in the last three years.
Q: Why do you think snacks have been performing so strongly?
The COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent health and economic effects have meant that 2020 may go down in history as one of the most stressful times in the 21st century.
Snacking can give struggling consumers a physical and emotional boost, particularly as consumers turn to treat foods for comfort. In China, snacks cater to the 71% of consumers who say that snacking helps relieve pressure and the 54% of consumers who say that snacking helps kill time.
As emotional challenges and the boredom of restricted movement of social activities continue, the trajectory of the snack market remains positive over the next 18-24 months
VDS players, including probiotic brands, could offer snack-blurring supplements to consumers, particularly to consumers who are intimidated with the scientific image of VDS, such as children.
Of health supplement buyers agree food-like supplements are safer (48%) or more effective (49%) than general supplements.
An examples of this is Bioglan’s Healthy Kids Probiotic Choc Balls. It’s products like these which blur the line between confectionery and supplements.
These kinds of products may resonate better with Chinese consumers going forwards.
Meet the expert
Senior Food Science and Nutrition Analyst - Mintel (Singapore)
Michelle has over 10 years of experience in the nutrition & wellness industry, having also worked as a nutritionist, therapeutic dietician and personal trainer