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An Immune Movement


Immune health is no longer just a cold and flu seasonal concern, but a yearlong matter that has consumers looking for proven ingredients. 

Maintaining a strong immune system is at the base of preventative health care. Immune system health is a fickle thing; not only are essential nutrients critical for the production and maintenance of key germfighting cells in the immune system, but a balanced diet also has a strong effect on vascular function, and the immune system is dependent on blood flow. In addition, sleep is of utmost importance. In a study recently completed by Carnegie Mellon University, researchers found that those who do not get more than seven hours of sleep a night are three times more likely to get the common cold as those who do. There is no doubt that improving immune systems will help improve the quality of lives. 

Thus, the demand for immune support products is growing as nutritional research unfolds, increasing consumer awareness. According to Mike Uckele, CEO of Uckele Health & Nutrition (Blissfield, MI), each year there are roughly 10,000 new chemicals introduced into the environment that are potentially immune altering in some way. Specific nutrients have been shown to directly support the immune system to counteract these negative influences; however, virtually every nutrient and every supplement is capable of some type of immune support, said Uckele.

Immune system protection has become more understood—and important— to many more consumers, agreed Paula Nurnberger, marketing manager for PL Thomas (Morristown, NJ). “The AIDS crisis in the 1980s brought the previously generally unknown ‘immune system’ to the forefront for consumers,” she said. “When echinacea became very popular as a natural tool to help cut down on number of colds, consumers once again became more acutely aware of the immune system and its ability to keep the human organism safe from pathogenic events when it is highly functioning, and the problems that may arise when it isn’t.

“Now that most consumers are aware to varying degrees that they must do what they can to keep their immune systems functioning optimally to enjoy quality of life,” Nurnberger continued, adding “supplements geared to nourish and support the structure, function and various activities of the immune system remain very popular.” 

Immune support is of increasing interest to consumers as the cost of health care continues to grow and as the economy remains uncertain, added Shaheen Majeed, marketing director at Sabinsa Corporation (East Windsor, NJ). “That market will only be sustainable if consumers are getting results, so wise manUfacturers are looking for ingredients with a track record of safety and efficacy. At the same time, the regulatory environment has become more challenging, so ingredients with science behind them that consumers can research can take the place of information which cannot be included in marketing materials.”

Trends According to the Natural Marketing Institute’s latest study on consumer trends, the top conditions still on consumers’ minds are foods that address heart health, immune function, digestive health and cholesterol reduction. Specifically, in the overall immune health category, shoring up before cold and flu season remains the No. 1 concern among the average consumer. But now, immune Health concerns have gone much further than a cough, cold and headache. 

Recently, an increasing number of consumers are realizing that antioxidants are powerful immune-protective supplements; they now can make the link between oxidative stress and impaired immune function, said Nurnberger, adding that antioxidants are trending in exotic beverages and as food additives.

According to Suzanne McNeary, president at NutraGenesis LLC (Brattleboro, VT), her company is witnessing increased consumer demand for immune health products that address additional health benefits. “This, too, is a response in part to the economy, as consumers have only so much money earmarked for their personal care; therefore, they are looking for products that can cover more bases,” she said. “We have responded to that by creating new product offerings that provide additional health benefits that consumers are looking for on a daily basis—in particular, stress reduction, which is directly correlated to healthy immune defenses.”

Another trend shoppers seek are immune system modulators, rather than just immune system stimulants, said Jack Grogan, Uckele’s CSO, adding that the company responded with its Glycophagen™ formula. “Glycophagen is a powdered premix that directly addresses immune issues stemming from the gastrointestinal tract, which directly affects the gut associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) that comprises about 70 percent of the immune system. This formula can stabilize the immune system at the site of the lymphatic ducts, repair damaged gut tissue, re-inoculate good microflora and replace the needed enzymes for proper GI balance.” 

Further, consumer awareness and demand for proven ingredients has been increasing as well. As with other categories in the nutraceutical industry, the immune health Category is becoming more science-based. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, companies were making unsubstantiated claims and consumers were buying based on non-existent or weak science, explained Bob Capelli, vice president of sales and marketing at Cyanotech Corporation (Kailua-Kona, HI). “Now, consumers want to read that an ingredient has proven effective in a human clinical trial done by a respected university before they buy a supplement,” he said.

Immune Ingredients 

Immune support ingredients target a vast area of health issues, and vitamin D is one of the bases for immune health, as it supports the health of the bones and teeth by improving calcium absorption and bio-availability. A product recently developed by Uckele, D3-K2™, combines D with vitamin K, which work synergistically to support bones, teeth and connective tissue. Together, they also support healthy calcium metabolism in the soft tissues of the body and improves blood vessel Health. This is taken sublingually to most effectively be absorbed and utilized, explained Uckele.

PL Thomas’ SkinGest™ PSOR is a unique, patented, highly purified and non-GMO whey protein isolate with multifunctional properties. It promotes the natural and balanced immune functions of the skin. The bioactive profile of SkinGest PSOR is related to the presence of standardized growth factors, active peptides and immunoglobulins in the extract. SkinGest PSOR acts by reducing T-cell activity, thereby promoting healthy keratinocytes and fibroblast responses. It also promotes a healthy balance of T-helper-1 and T-helper-2 immune cell activity. It may be used in formulas to reduce itchy, red, dry and scaly skin while promoting skin health. 

According to Nurnberger, Life Quality Index scores, as well as itching sensation, decreased significantly at the end of the usage period for those taking SkinGest PSOR compared to placebo. SkinGest PSOR represents a natural health product to be used as supportive oral cosmeceutical treatment for mildto- moderate skin irritations.

Embria Health Sciences’ (Ankeny, IA) most successful ingredient is and continues to be EpiCor®, said Cheryl Sturm, the company’s marketing director. A one-of-akind immune balancing ingredient, EpiCor helps to educate the human immune system to respond appropriately to a variety of stimuli. Due to the complexity of the Immune system, and its interaction with other bodily systems, investments in scientific research will continue to focus on EpiCor in areas of gut health, as well as other conditions, said Sturm, adding that, “ingredients like vitamin D3, vitamin C, EpiCor and echinacea continue to perform well whether as single supplement offerings or in combination formulas with other ingredients. Formulas that offer immune benefits in combination with other condition- specific benefits are also seeing an increase in popularity.”

Support ingredient, and has been used to boost immunity for more than 25 years, said Cyanotech’s Capelli. “The clinical research done at University of California Davis in 2010 and published earlier this year clearly validated the use of Hawaiian Spirulina to boost immunity. We’ve seen a huge increase in consumption of Hawaiian Spirulina as a result of this study and publicity this year.” 

This trial showed how Hawaiian Spirulina can boost immunity, and at the same time, help with anemia in patients over 50 years old. “The results were very promising, which may be due to the fact that Hawaiian Spirulina has significantly higher levels of key nutrients compared to other brands,” said Capelli. 

Additionally, Sabinsa offers a wide Range of natural ingredients to support immune health. One such ingredient, Saberry™, is the powdered extract of the fruits of amla (Emblica officinalis Gaertn.), and is the leader in broad spectrum antioxidant activity, showing a cumulative ORAC value of 5282, which is significantly better than any of the water-soluble antioxidant products that are currently available in the market. “It acts as a super scavenger of superoxide anions by ferreting out and destroying them throughout the body,” explained Majeed. “Saberry is beneficial in managing respiratory disorders and especially valuable in seasonal cough and cold. It is also useful in recurrent respiratory infections such as tonsillitis, sinusitis and sore throat. It provides much relief from dry cough and helps in the expectoration of mucous.”


Although immune health can be considered a booming category, its vastness can cause problems. For one, it has been extremely difficult for consumers to differentiate one immune health ingredient from another, since nearly all purport to boost the immune system, said Sturm. 

Without the ability to also suppress certain immune functions, these products are primarily positioned for sales during cold and flu season, a limited sales cycle,” she said. “Also, some ingredients suffer from ‘immune fatigue,’ making it necessary for consumers to cycle on and off a product in order to maintain the product’s effectiveness. All of this ‘sameness’ makes it difficult for manufacturers to differentiate their products from one another, which can create confusion in the mind of consumers as well as decrease profitability.”

Selling immunity has always had its challenges, agreed NutraGenesis’s McNeary, adding that immune products have historically been viewed as seasonal products, but in reality, people come in contact with things 365 days a year that have the potential to make them sick, such as the summer cold. McNeary also mentioned the challenge that immune products are not experiential; “You don’t necessarily feel the benefit of the product over a short period of time like you would an energy supplement.”

Moreover, the Uckele R&D team has identified a market need for a manufacturing process that offered higher bioavailability of nutritional ingredients to the body to ensure that nutrients are properly absorbed and utilized. Many manufacturing techniques used to produce nutritional products in the marketplace often void them of much of their nutritional value, said Uckele’s Grogan. 

The Uckele Flora Coat™ method was developed in response to the issue of applying heat-sensitive probiotics in a way that would effectively bind them without destroying them, while retaining the right properties to be assimilated and utilized in the gut. “This unique method applies living, beneficial bacterial cultures to the formula as an important final step of the process, which ensures that viable, living probiotics are made available at the most effective site for absorption,” Grogan explained.

Additionally, the Uckele PTM™ process was developed to provide higher nutrient bioavailability by combining important minerals and complex carbohydrates to form a stable polysaccharide complex. A cold processing method is used to improve trace mineral bio-availability by reducing unwanted mineral interactions in the digestive tract until it is released at the site of absorption. This process enhances bioavailability and absorption and allows for less interference from antagonistic nutrients, said Grogan. 

No matter the challenges that both ingredient suppliers and product manufacturers might face, immune health remains a burgeoning segment in the natural products industry. The category continues to grow due to the economy as well as consumer awareness, said McNeary. “Consumers cannot afford to get sick, as that means they may miss work or cannot keep up with the daily demands of life. [Thus], immune support is becoming a year-round concern, rather than just a seasonal cold and flu requirement.”

Manufacturer Modulation

Achallenge for immune product manufacturers is making their message heard amid all the competing products claiming to help consumers with their immune health. NIE asked participating companies their opinions on what manufacturers can do to make their products stand out.

“Be as specific and as clear as possible. Do not over-promise or over-sell. Immune support supplements taken daily will not likely be felt immediately, but [instead] over time, as consumers may notice that they are generally healthier with better sensitivity to allergens, fewer bouts of colds, etc. The science behind the ingredients must be easily accessible for consumers to research and understand how the product will work to maintain health.” 

— Paula Nurnberger, Marketing Manager, PL Thomas

“Uckele strongly believes in educating the consumer to leverage natural ingredients through regular, updated informational articles on our website and newsletters, in our community newspapers, as well as through national magazine outlets, and even on Twitter and Facebook. There is so much information coming from the pharmaceutical companies with the next big scare that the knowledgeable market requires a credible resource in the nutrition industry to offset this information.”

— Mike Uckele, CEO, Uckele Health & Nutrition

“[Product manufacturers] should address more than just the immune benefit. Providing additional health benefits that consumers are looking for such as stress reduction or energy enhancement can really help make a product stand out from the competition.” 

— Suzanne McNeary, President, NutraGenesis, LLC

“Manufacturers must develop messages that convey a relevant point of differentiation for their brands and products, and continue to look for innovative ways to deliver those messages, whether utilizing new social media tactics or more conventional means of delivery.” 

— Cheryl Sturm, Director of Marketing, Embria Health Sciences

“All the marketing in the world won’t convince consumers to buy a product again if it doesn’t work. We believe helping our customers develop products that are safe and effective, while providing them with the supporting science, is the best way to cut through hype.” 

— Shaheen Majeed, Marketing Director, Sabinsa Corporation

Non-GMO Project