Defence mechanism

Immune-boosting foods get a boost in the wake of COVID-19
Shutterstock/Larisa Klassen

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, consumers are seeking new ways to stay healthy. Products that go beyond basic nutrition by promising something to aid wellness fall under “functional foods”—a red-hot category poised for growth even after the pandemic subsides.

The quest for a tip-top immune system is, not surprisingly, a high priority for consumers right now. Over the last decade, sales of immunity supplements have increased; the COVID-19 pandemic has merely lit a match under the sector. In its first quarter this year alone, for instance, Jamieson Vitamins saw sales jump 16.5% in Canada, credited, in part, to immunity supplements. In that light, the consumer desire for immunity-boosting packaged foods—beyond fresh produce and supplements—has been a logical evolution. According to the Supplements and Functional Food 2020 report from Bellevue, Wash.-based Hartman Group, 30% of COVID-aware consumers say they have a greater need for immunity boosting now.

Grocers and food manufacturers are paying close attention. “Companies tend to innovate in places where the money’s going,” says Shelley Balanko, senior vice-president, Hartman Group. “You see some interesting new products focusing on immunity as well as other associated benefits, like reduction of inflammation and improvement of digestion.”

Balanko points to the bone broth craze as an example. Consumers have embraced it in recent years to improve gut health and boost immunity, and are using it not only as an ingredient for cooking, but are drinking it, too. Also doing well among those interested in an immunity boost are fibre-rich foods and foods featuring probiotics. Think fermented items such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, miso, kombucha and sauerkraut.

Up next, mushrooms are up-and-coming functional-food ingredients. “They’ve been popping up all over the place,” notes Balanko. If they’re not already, consumers will soon be familiar with mushrooms with names like lion’s mane and chaga, purported to help with immunity. They’re already being added to coffees, teas, creamers, nutritional drink shots and hot chocolate mixes.

Familiar, tried-and-true staples are also reaping the benefits of the immunity-seeking trend through innovation. Drizzle Honey, for example, is creating a buzz around its high-quality, raw Canadian honey. “We have absolutely noticed a spike in sales of Ginger Shine as well as the rest of our Superfood Honey Collection,” says company founder Aja Horsley. Ginger Shine, a special immunity blend, also contains lemon verbena, chamomile and elderflower.

Working with grocers has been key to Drizzle’s success. “We love working with grocers on social media to promote our products, especially now that consumer behaviour is changing so rapidly,” explains Horsley. “It gives us a real opportunity to directly reach our customers through the grocers’ online channels as well as our own. In-store, our brand has a strong shelf presence and really stands out on end-caps. And honey is easy to cross-promote.”

Richa Gupta, founder of Turmeric Teas, has also seen a sales uptick during COVID-19. “I combined my knowledge of Ayurveda and personal experience with using tea made from the spices in my kitchen to create delicious teas with turmeric that help fight inflammation and boost immunity,” she says. The popularity of her loose-leaf teas inspired the creation of latte blends based on traditional golden milk (haldi doodh), known as an immune booster in Indian culture. Her company has added two SKUs of these turmeric latte powders: Joy (a “vitalizing” blend) and Bliss (an “elevating” blend).

To navigate through the sometimes-confusing world of functional foods, consumers often need guidance. “Hiring educated staff is key,” says Jane Greenley, dispensary department purchaser for The Big Carrot Community Market in Toronto. “Our staff are industry professionals and go through regular product knowledge training sessions.” Though the grocer has an educated customer base, Greenley says there has been a surge in new clientele seeking natural ways to support their immune systems.

Along with having knowledgeable staff available, grocers can maximize sales of immunity-boosting foods by giving them prominence in the store and not tucking them away. “To put these products off in a corner adjacent to the pharmacy would not be the place that consumers are looking,” Balanko warns.

Dana McCauley, food trend tracker and director, New Venture Creation, University of Guelph, says that since shoppers are no longer lingering or browsing in stores, there’s a need to shift to digital promotion to highlight immune boosters. “There’s a real opportunity here to partner with medical professionals and experts to assist consumers. You’d be well served to become a trusted source of information that people actually use.”

This article appeared in the June/July issue of Canadian Grocer.

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