Something old, something new

The big five immunity ingredients are vitamins C and D, zinc, elderberry and probiotics. But other bioactives still vie for consumer acclaim.
Taffel Sturgeon

Five nutritional ingredients tend to power mainstream immune-support supplements in the food/drug/mass market—vitamins C and D, zinc, elderberry and probiotics.

Vitamin C has long been the foundational supplements ingredient for supporting immunity, so it’s no surprise that pandemic demand led to consumers clamoring for the ingredient—sales shot up by 58.1%, according to the Nutrition Business Journal 2023 Supplement Business Report. Vitamin D was in a strong second place in 2020 with a 47.5% gain.

[Read more: A return to nature

But as the COVID immunity rush subsides, the sales hit has taken its toll. Vitamin C sales in the first half of this year are down 16.6%, according to SPINS sales data encompassing the conventional and natural market. Vitamin D sales are also down, by 9.7%. That difference between the two letter vitamins suggests consumers recognize that vitamin D is valuable across more health concerns than just immune function.

Elderberry, used to reduce the severity and duration of colds and flu, saw sales in the first half of the year collapse—down 26.8%. And zinc sales are down 19.4%, according to SPINS. Probiotic supplements continue their rise—up 3.3% through the first half of 2023—which is indicative of applications beyond even the traditional gut health and immunity to benefits as far-flung as cognition, skin health and more.

[Read more: Walgreens releases 2023-2024 flu index

Despite the drop-off in products selling these rather traditional ingredients, it doesn’t mean there will be no sales of immune-support supplements during the current cold- and-flu season. After all, some part of that drop-off is because of the astonishing sales spike during the pandemic.

New products, old ingredients

New products continue to be brought on to the market. The latest entrant is a baby cough syrup and immune booster, developed by a pair of pediatric moms. 

“We noticed that more and more parents were seeking alternative natural remedies for mild health concerns,” said ZenOsa company co-founder Louisa Salisbury, M.D. “We also knew from our research that there was growing evidence for certain specific remedies, but we weren’t impressed with what was on the market.”

While the product is powered by vitamins C and D, zinc and elderberry, it does use monk fruit as a zero-calorie sweetener source. Zinc is a well- known mineral with a demonstrated ability to reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms by preventing viruses from both binding and replicating in the nasal mucosa. That’s why it is usually found in lozenges or sprays. One study found that it reduced the length of cold symptoms by three days. Another study found symptom resolution two days sooner than those taking a placebo.

Researcher Dr. George Eby discovered in 1984 that zinc gluconate could provide immune support to a compromised immune system. He compared 23 mg zinc lozenge to placebo, giving the lozenge every two hours after an initial double dose. After seven days, 86% of zinc-treated subjects were asymptomatic, compared with 46% of the placebo group.

His study led the way to Quantum Health Products developing its specially formulated line of zinc gluconate lozenges that was launched shortly after Eby’s research.

“Our TheraZinc line was the very first line of zinc lozenges offered for sale,” said Todd Howerter, Quantum’s vice president of marketing. “Consumers are searching for products with studied ingredients made by companies they trust.”

Non-traditional enhancers 

Beyond the big five immune-support ingredients are a range of products powered by bioactives that can help customers complaining of cough, colds and flu concerns.

A recent study published in March 2023 assessed anti-viral properties of three sugar alcohols, which are no-calorie sweeteners usually used to CY reduce calories in beverages. One of the three sugar alcohols, xylitol, displayed antiviral activity against three highly contagious respiratory infections caused by viruses—including (ahem) SARS-CoV-2. Previous work done at Utah State University had discovered that these sugar alcohols work by blocking adhesion of different viruses on human airway tissues.

Homeopathic remedies have been around for a century in the U.S. market, and twice as long in Europe. In that span of time stands a product class that is trusted as safe and effective by consumers, especially for parents giving medicines to their children.

“The safety profile of the products is definitely a key attribute,” said Les Hamilton, president of Hyland’s, a homeopathic brand founded in 1903. “Additionally, parents are seeking out more natural options for their children.”

The natural angle is key as natural-focused shoppers sometimes want to just drop in to more convenient drug store locations.

“The trade channels are blurring,” said MaryEllen Tefft, vice president of sales FDM at Boiron, a homeopathic brand founded in 1932. “Natural channel shoppers now expect to conveniently pick up their favorite products in food, drug and mass outlets.”

Meeting consumers where they are in convenient locations will always be a nice situation to be in for the mainstream bricks-and-mortar outlets. All the better to keep offering consumers new ways to deal with old illnesses in innovative ways.

  • FDA advised to ban a billion-dollar baby

    FDA advised to ban a billion-dollar baby

    An FDA advisory committee panel in September recommended taking phenylephrine off the shelves of OTC products, saying it does not work as a nasal decongestant.

    The unanimous advice from 16 advisors holds only for orally administered products, such as tablets or capsules, but not for nasal sprays. In 2022, an estimated 242 million products containing phenylephrine were sold totaling $1.763 billion in sales.

    If the FDA ends up agreeing with the committee‘s advice, it will start a process including public comment before working with OTC drug makers to help them reformulate products in certain SKUs of brands, such as Nyquil, Benadryl, Sudafed and Mucinex.

    “I never really thought that medication worked very well at all,” said Gene Bruno, provost at Huntington College of Health Sciences and chief science officer at Nutraland USA. “Of course ephedra used to be good for that but it isn’t available any more. Pseudoephedrine still works well.”

    Ephedra was commonly used in dietary supplements as a weight-loss aid but was traditionally used for asthma, bronchitis and hay fever. The FDA banned the ingredient over safety concerns for dieters in 2004. Pseudoephedrine can be found in OTC products such as Sudafed and Allegra-D.

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