Derived from the cell wall of a proprietary strain of baker’s yeast, Wellmune is a highly purified beta 1,3/1,6 glucan with a pale color and neutral taste that should be distinguished from cholesterol-busting oat beta glucan (1,3/1,4), and from beta glucans extracted from brewer’s yeast, which are also beta 1,3/1,6 glucans, but have a different molecular structure.
Attractive to formulators because it can withstand wide pH ranges, high temperatures and harsh processing conditions such as UHT, Wellmune had struck deals with a series of high-profile brands including Vital Proteins (Nestlé), Liquid IV, and Olly gummies (Unilever) pre-Covid.
However, the pandemic accelerated interest in immunity, with consumers rushing to stock up on vitamin C and D, but also seeking out other ingredients claimed to have immune health benefits from elderberries to probiotics, presenting brands with ingredients backed by solid science in this area with a big opportunity, said John Quilter, Global ProActive Health Technology VP at Kerry.
‘We see a big opportunity in functional snacks’
Almost four out of 10 consumers in a recent global survey of 13,000 consumers conducted by Kerry had used an immune health product over the past six months and a further 30% would consider doing so in future, said Quilter, noting that categories seen as a good fit for immune health benefits included fruit juices, spoonable yogurt, dairy-based drinks and hot beverages.
According to Kerry, which has a soluble version of Wellmune with extremely small particles ideal for clear beverages, functional beverages accounted for 35.5% of all new beverage launches in North America in 2020. However, snacks also present new growth opportunities for Wellmune, which has a five-year ambient shelf life.
“Our marketing team has just carried out a survey of 13,000 consumers across 16 countries,” said Quilter. “And while 44% said they have bought more dietary supplements since the outbreak of the pandemic, 42% said they have increased purchases of functional or fortified foods and beverages, so we see a big opportunity there, particularly in functional snacks.
“People are leading hectic lifestyles, burning the candle at both ends and generally wanting to stay healthy and stay well.”
Respondents in recent survey commissioned by Kerry of 13,000 consumers across 16 countries, were presented with a list of health areas and asked which were reasons for buying healthy lifestyle products. 58% chose immune system support, ahead of healthy bones and joints at 46%, digestive health 43%, heart health at 40% and improved energy at 39%.
Bundling functional ingredients
While the original GRAS notification for Wellmune (which Kerry acquired through the acquisition of Biothera in 2015) covered a broad range of food applications, Kerry is updating it to add some additional categories including sports nutrition products, said Quilter, who said the Wellmune brand is backed by 16 clinical studies,* including studies on young children (helping it to attract some major infant formula brands), with recommended doses of 25-75mg for kids and 250mg for adults.
While many brands use Wellmune as a standalone ingredient, many customers are now combining it with vitamins, botanicals, probiotics and postbiotics, reflecting a growing trend towards 'bundling' ingredients around a particular health platform such as immunity, said Quilter.
When it comes to pricing, meanwhile, he said, “In terms of an ingredient with this level of clinical backing and proven efficacy, it's very good value for money, so for a children’s product you’re looking at maybe a one to two cent add on in cost [per serving].
“And for adults, I’d say a ballpark figure of six to six to eight cents, which in terms of protecting something as important as your immune health, we don't see as a significant add-on to customers who want to really drive differentiation and have an ingredient that is like an ‘Intel Inside’ [partner brands typically reference the Wellmune branding/logo on the front of pack].”
* Structure/function claims supported by clinical data include: 'Improves general immune health,' 'Maintains overall physical health,' 'Protects against the harmful effects of stress,' and 'Promotes healthy energy levels and mental clarity.'
How does Wellmune work?
According to Kerry, emerging evidence suggests Wellmune ‘primes’ the innate immune system (macrophages, neutrophils, natural killer cells, dendritic cells, basophils, eosinophils etc) by binding to neutrophils, which can more rapidly recognize, target and destroy infections without needing to first learn how to recognize invading pathogens.
This more general effect is essential for immune defense because it is helpful to have some level of protection from pathogens you’ve never encountered before, says the company.
In contrast, the adaptive immune system (T cells, B cells etc) – the second line of defense - needs time to adapt to pathogens, such that if the same pathogen is encountered for a second time, the response is rapid, accurate, and effective.