The world has woken up to a new era where immune health is in the spotlight. Food manufacturers can draw on probiotics which, clinical research has shown, may help consumers strengthen their natural defenses.
There’s nothing like a pandemic for getting people to think about how food can support their immune health. Since the arrival of the coronavirus, markets have experienced a change in consumer purchasing behavior with potential for a long-term impact. Market analysts are now predicting that, in the future, consumers will put even more emphasis on healthy food choices – and that one of the focus areas will be probiotic foods and beverages with a proven ability to boost immunity via the gut.
In the early days of the coronavirus lockdown in the US, a survey by Bernstein Research found that 35% of US consumers were already eating healthier food. Around 43% agreed that they would either continue their new-found healthier diet or, at the very least, pay more attention to nutrition moving forward – roughly just as many said they already prioritized health and nutrition before the pandemic took hold.
Meanwhile, a study by DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences has shown that global consumers have a generally good understanding of the link between probiotics and health. Around half associate probiotics with immune health, and about one in four believe they are beneficial for resisting colds and flu. Over the years, numerous clinical studies of probiotic strains have documented these positive effects.
The microbiome connection
This positive view has only been strengthened by studies of the human microbiome, the ecosystem of microbes that is naturally abundant in and on our bodies. Although modern hygiene practices, which have received unprecedented attention in these coronavirus times, reduce our risk of catching an infectious disease, it seems they could compromise other aspects of immunity.
Probiotic science liaison officer at DuPont, Lori Stern explains, “There is a hypothesis that less exposure to microbes may be linked to the rise of chronic conditions, like autoimmune diseases and allergies.
“Among leading microbiome experts, this has prompted an idea to introduce a recommended dietary allowance for safe microbe consumption, for example, by consuming fermented foods and probiotic foods or supplements.”
The point is that trillions of bacteria reside in the gut, more than anywhere else in the body. Here, they exist alongside more than 70% of the cells that make up the immune system. In recent years, scientists have found increasing evidence of the cradle-to-grave interaction between the immune system and the microbiome. Research to identify probiotic strains that can strengthen the microbiome has consequently intensified at the same time.
Impacts on immune health
Today, there is more scientific documentation of how probiotics influence immune health than other immune-related ingredients, such as vitamins C and D, zinc, echinacea, elderberry and beta-glucans. DuPont has contributed to a number of clinical studies, which have investigated the effect of specific probiotic strains on respiratory health.
One of them enrolled 465 healthy men and women in Australia for a five-month investigation of the health impact of daily dietary supplementation with Bifidobacterium lactis Bl-04®. This found that the risk of contracting symptoms associated with an upper respiratory tract illness was 27% lower in the group that received Bl-04® compared to the placebo.
In another study, this time in the US, 152 healthy adult volunteers were given a daily dose of Bl-04® or a placebo for four weeks before rhinovirus – the predominant cause of the common cold – was applied to their nostrils. Five days after infection, the participants in the Bl-04® group had significantly less detectable rhinovirus in their nose than the placebo group, indicating an impact on the immune response.
That the immune system declines with age is well known. This is why several clinical studies of another Bifidobacterium lactis strain – HN019 – have explored the potential to enhance the immune function of elderly adults.
“It’s known that both immune function and bifidobacteria levels decline with age. Increasing levels of bifidobacteria may support the intestinal barrier and function of the immune system,” Lori Stern explains.
“What these studies have shown is that HN019 helps to promote cellular immune function such as phagocytic capacity and natural killer cell activity.”
An economic perspective
From an economic perspective, a US model has estimated that daily probiotic consumption by the general population can lead to a significant reduction in antibiotic prescriptions and days of sick leave from work. In other words, probiotic supplementation can both improve health and reduce the financial burden on society.
Although probiotics have driven the global dietary supplement industry for years, DuPont surveys show that consumers have a clear preference for probiotic foods and beverages rather than pills. Just one in five rely on supplements alone for their probiotic intake.
“Food manufacturers across regions are responding to this by developing innovative probiotic products. In most areas, probiotic dairy products are still important, but there is a clear move towards using probiotics in other food and beverages categories,” says Eve Martinet-Bareau, global product manager for dairy probiotics at DuPont.
A focus on local brands
According to Euromonitor, regional product development is also likely to become more important as consumers respond to the coronavirus pandemic by choosing to buy more local brands. In line with this trend, DuPont is investing in a new innovation center in Turkey to support food manufacturers in the Middle East and North Africa. The Turkish market for probiotic dairy products and fermented beverages already shows significant potential for growth.
At a time when national lockdowns have given many of us a chance to pause for consideration, health-enhancing diets have gained an even higher place on the consumer agenda. The introduction of proven probiotics to more everyday foods and beverages could make healthy eating an easier option.
Dupont Nutrition and Biosciences