Donna Berry 
Product Development Editor

Moms have long warned their kids that if they play in the rain, they might catch a cold. The reality is moms just don’t want to clean up muddy messes, but telling a child that would only serve as an invitation to splash and slosh.

The truth is you cannot catch a cold from being wet and chilled for an extended period of time, but a soggy state can lower one’s resistance to infection, and quite possibly a cold virus can be contracted. The good news is that normally healthy individuals with uncompromised immune systems can boost their shield of armor through nutrient-dense foods, in particular dairy foods, which are inherently loaded with nutrients that improve overall well-being. They also function as an ideal carrier for immune-boosting ingredients. Such enhanced foods appeal to consumers of all ages, in particular parents who want to build their kids’ autoimmune systems and mature adults who experience a reduction in their ability to ward off infection.

According to the 2011 Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), Washington, D.C., a majority of Americans believe they have some control over their health and that food and nutrition play the most important role in maintaining and improving their overall health. Additionally, most (87%) consumers agree with the concept of functional foods, which are described as foods and beverages that may provide benefits beyond basic nutrition.

Since 1998, when the first IFIC study was conducted, there has been a significant increase in consumer awareness of such functional foods, and consumers continue to be interested in learning more about these beneficial foods. In fact, a majority of Americans are interested in foods and beverages that can provide a host of health benefits, including boosting immunity. In this year’s survey, 79% of the 1,000 adults who participated in the web-based survey this spring agree that some foods or beverages can boost their immunity.

Immune health

Indeed, immune health is one of the fastest-growing health concerns among Americans, according to the 2011 HealthFocus International U.S. Trend Report. “In fact, the report shows that three of the Top 10 food benefits of interest to Americans are related to immune function,” says Barbara Davis, vice president, HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla. “These three benefits are: helps reduce risk of cancer, supports the immune system and helps build resistance to common diseases.”

Davis does say, however, that even though consumers might be finding these benefits increasingly appealing, food and beverage marketers are proceeding very cautiously with making such immunity-related claims. This is likely a result of more and more regulatory agencies challenging claims here and abroad.

“What we are seeing this year is more activity in making content claims - what is and is not in a product,” she says. “Examples include ‘contains antioxidants’ and ‘enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids.’”

Supporting HealthFocus’ data, Ipsos Marketing, Consumer Goods Sector, New York, says that the top benefits parents want their children to receive from eating healthy foods relate to heart health, reduced risk of disease, brain development and immunity.

“Manufacturers are feeling the pressure from all angles to market healthier food to children,” says Lauren Demar, CEO of Ipsos. “Parents are demanding nutritious and functional foods to serve their children while new regulations are restricting marketing efforts for less healthy food options. At the same time, manufacturers need to appeal to children by offering great-tasting food with ‘kid appeal,’ as children still influence food purchases in many countries.”

Demar adds, “It is a whole new world for marketers, but we are already seeing them step up to the challenge. Today we see healthy options for kids in a wide range of categories, including beverages (juice boxes fortified with calcium), dairy (milk with omega-3 fatty acids), cereal (gluten-free options) and snacks (fruit chews containing vitamin C).”

Ingredients for immunity

There are a number of well-recognized immune-boosting ingredients and others where the science is still emerging. Many of the following ingredients are readily added to milk-based beverages, as well as other dairy foods, in particular yogurt.

Aloe vera - Best known as a topical ointment, aloe vera can also be consumed alone or added to formulations. It has been shown to increase resistance of an organism to adverse influences such as infection or stress, as well as function as a natural anti-inflammatory and promote healthy cell growth.

Beta-carotene - Produced by plants and converted by the body into vitamin A, beta-carotene harbors potent antioxidant properties. It also has been shown to stimulate and enhance many immune system processes.

Colostrum - The first milk produced by female cows and given to newborn calves, colostrum contains active antibodies, which are natural immune-boosting substances.

Echinacea - Commonly referred to as the purple cornflower, this botanical is recognized as a remedy for reducing symptoms associated with the common cold.

Grape seed extract - The proanthocyanidins found in grape seed extract have been shown to be 20 to 50 times greater than beta-carotene or vitamins C and E at scavenging free radicals. Further, studies have shown that grape seed extract helps promote the structural strength of blood vessels, which in turn helps promote healthy blood pressure levels, heart health and a proper inflammation response, all factors that contribute to immune response.

Green tea extract - Green tea is loaded with epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to affect migration of immune cells to sites of inflammation and have a positive effect on chronic inflammatory disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids - The family of fatty acids referred to as omega-3s has been shown to boost immunity by producing white blood cells that destroy dangerous bacteria. Other studies have shown that omega-3s help the body to not overreact to an infection. They also have anti-inflammatory properties, which suggest that they can help slow down the effects of autoimmune diseases.

Prebiotics - Prebiotics are substances that promote the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, which in turn enhances immune response.

Probiotic cultures - Select clinically proven probiotic strains have been shown to support the immune system, assisting the body in fighting disease caused by bacteria and viruses.

Soluble fiber - Soluble fiber has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, which helps strengthen the immune system and helps the body recover faster from infection.

Vitamin C - Shown to increase the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and antibodies and increase levels of interferon, the antibody that coats cell surfaces, vitamin C is said to prevent the entry of disease.

Vitamin D - Known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is critical to replenishing the lining of the gut and maintaining the integrity of the mucosa. This contributes to a healthy digestive system, which in turn leads to improved immune response.

Vitamin E - This powerhouse fat-soluble vitamin enhances the production of antibodies that ward off infection and may also reverse some of the decline in immune response commonly seen in aging.

Zinc - Best known as the pill to pop when you feel the sniffles coming on, research on zinc shows that not only does it bolster the immune system to fight colds; it can also help stave off other common infections.