Healthy eating is nothing new, and consumers have long looked to food as part of their wellness goals.

In the past decades, processors have met consumer needs by offering products such as low-fat dairy that supposedly helped people keep their weight down. But in recent years, consumers’ definition of health and wellness has shifted into something much more three-dimensional.

Jennifer Stephens, vice president of marketing for River Falls, Wis.-based Fiberstar Inc., says that consumers’ perspective on wellness has changed from looking for “magic bullet foods” as one-stop shops for health into something that goes beyond nutrition.

“Today, there are multi-prong approaches to a healthy lifestyle which go beyond eating healthy foods,” she explains. “It now includes daily exercise, emotional support, stress reduction and mental health management.”

Dr. Polly Barrett, director of sales and marketing at Kalamazoo, Mich.-based National Flavors, agrees that wellness has a new meaning today.

“While ideas about healthy lifestyle still include eating well, exercising, getting rest and finding life balance, some consumers are placing more focus on meeting those goals,” she says. “Mental health is also becoming a higher priority.”

This change in perspective has led to an increased interest in functional foods that promote specific areas of health, notes Rebecca Shurhay, marketing analyst at Flavorchem, Downer’s Grove, Ill.

“Consumer priority currently centers around products featuring immune, digestive and cognitive health claims, which have all peaked concern during the pandemic,” she adds.

According to Jessica Knutzon, senior manager, Americas marketing for CP Kelco, Atlanta, 2020 has been the year of “good for me” — a more functional shift from the weight-reduction-focused “better for you” offerings of recent years.

“From gut health to extra protein and immunity boosts, consumers are seeking products which provide more functionality,” she explains. “This gives more importance to every ingredient on the label.”


Interest in immunity

While eating healthy has been a consumer concern for years, its importance has heightened during the coronavirus pandemic, explains Kyle Krause, product manager, functional fiber and carbohydrates, North America for Beneo Inc., Parsippany, N.J.

“The impact of COVID-19 has heightened concerns about the long-term health for all members of [consumers’] families,” he says. “A new global study conducted by FMCG Gurus on behalf of Beneo showed that healthy ingredients and label transparency have become more important to consumers, particularly regarding immunity.”

According to the study, 64% of global consumers are more conscious of their immune health, and the same percentage of respondents is “more interested in ingredients in food and drink products that provide preventive or protective health benefits,” Krause says.

Jessica Arnaly, communication specialist for Paramus, N.J.-based FrieslandCampina Ingredients North America, cited the same study as evidence that the coronavirus has affected consumer priorities.

“Six out of 10 consumers worldwide state that they are more conscious about their overall health and wellbeing as a result of COVID-19,” she said.

Anand Rao, vice president of ingredients innovation, Agropur U.S., Eden Prairie, Minn., also has seen the growth of immunity-boosting claims since the beginning of the pandemic.

“During these pandemic times, most consumers are thinking not only about the general nutrition from foods, but also the broader impact on their wellness and immunity,” he says.

Immunity-boosting ingredients include natural herbs, vitamins, minerals and calcium, explains Jenn Adams, business development manager for Fenton, Mo.-based International Food Products Corp. For its part, the company offers vitamins/minerals that dairy processors can add to their formulations.

“Also, we have different versions of commonly used minerals that are more bioavailable,” she adds.

According to Michael Sutich, manager of product lines for Park Ridge, N.J.-based Farbest Brands, immunity claims, along with “superfood” ingredients, will be “winners in the eyes of consumers” for the near future.

“Lots of consumers view wellness and self-care as ways to protect themselves,” he adds.   

To meet these needs, Farbest offers ingredients such as vitamins C, E, D3 and the B vitamin complex, Sutich explains.

Another area of interest for their immune-boosting qualities are botanical ingredients, says Meghan Fox, marketing specialist for St. Louis-based Sensient Food Colors.

“Brands can leverage ingredients known for aiding the immune system. Some of these ingredients that we expect to see on the rise due to their perceived ‘health halo’ are elderberry, turmeric, ginger and chaga mushroom,” she points out.


Good for the gut

Gut health is another focus area for those with wellness concerns. According to Brad Schwan, vice president, category marketing for ADM, consumers are interested in how gut health relates to immunity. In response, the Chicago-based company offers probiotic ingredients that add health benefits. 

“We also have a novel approach to adding the potential benefits associated with probiotics to dairy products. Our new HT-BPL1 is a postbiotic made from heat-treating the probiotic BPL1 that targets metabolic health,” he says. “It is uniquely tolerant to high-heat applications and other harsh processing conditions like pasteurization commonly used in dairy formulations.”

Yogurt already is associated with gut health, Schwan notes, so processors have “room to grow” in the category in terms of advertising more probiotic, prebiotics and postbiotics.

Pam Stauffer, global marketing communications manager for Minneapolis-based Cargill, says that probiotic gut health claims are well established, and consumers are now also interested in what prebiotics can offer as “a way to pack additional health benefits into each yogurt serving.”

Postbiotics are another area of interest, notes Christine Addington, senior technical specialist, dairy and dairy alternatives, Cargill. These ingredients, including Cargill’s EpiCor, have immune-boosting properties and can be added to products such as chocolate milk, frozen desserts and yogurt.

“Backed by over 75 years of fermentation expertise, EpiCor is made through a natural proprietary process that creates a unique fingerprint of metabolites,” explains Cashtyn Lovan, marketing manager, Cargill Health Technologies, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “More than a dozen published studies support its health benefits. While still a newcomer to the food and beverage space, we’ve used EpiCor to create indulgent yogurt prototypes infused with its health benefits.”

One-third of consumers believe they have some type of digestive issue, Arnaly says, and this is an area of focus for FrieslandCampina, too.

“We have decades of experience in the science of prebiotic effects and their development and application as ingredients,” she adds. “We believe our prebiotics show great promise in addressing a wide spectrum of adult gut-health conditions for which consumers are actively seeking solutions.”

Biotis, a new ingredient platform from FrieslandCampina, addresses some gut health concerns, as well as provides other functional benefits.

“The Biotis platform allows brand owners to tap into a variety of in-demand health benefits, beginning with gut health, followed by aspects including immunity, sleep and maternal health,” says Arnaly.


Full of fiber

Also related to consumers’ interest in gut health is their interest in fiber, notes Knutzon. For its part, CP Kelco offers Nutrava citrus fiber, and the company is exploring its possible dairy applications. 

According to Schwan, ADM’s research shows that fiber is the No. 1 ingredient of which consumers want to add more to their diet.

“ADM's Fibersol line makes it easy to incorporate prebiotic fiber in various applications without sacrificing dairy’s rich and creamy flavor and texture,” he points out. “Fibersol also is an effective solution to incorporate highly tolerable prebiotic fiber in various dairy applications while maintaining texture. We can also target metabolic health with HT-BPL1, which is appropriate for pasteurization or high-heat applications.”

Fibersol can be used in dairy products, but it also offers other advantages when added to dairy alternatives. It helps with mouthfeel and masking flavor off-notes, Schwan says.

And Beneo offers chicory root fibers that help reduce sugar and fat (and thus total calories), explains Krause.

“A smart sugar reduction is replacing part of the sugar by enriching with chicory root fiber,” he adds. “This means a lower glycemic response, a higher fiber content, a proven prebiotic effect on the gut microbiome supporting digestive health and weight management support by helping consumers eat less.”

Addington says most consumers don’t have a problem getting the protein they need, but many under-consume fiber. Cargill also offers chicory root fibers under its Oliggo-Fiber brand.

“Nutritionally, chicory root fiber is supported by more than 20 years of research showing its positive effect,” Addington says. “Studies show that 5 grams of chicory root fiber per day not only contribute fiber to the diet, but can also help feed normal beneficial bacteria and help support a healthy microflora in the digestive tract.”

According to Stephens, Fiberstar’s citrus fibers have different benefits, depending on their application.

“For instance, Citri-Fi prevents syneresis and improves mouthfeel in yogurts. In dairy spreads, Citri-Fi improves the stability and quality of the product over time,” she says. “And in many cases, Citri-Fi is used to replace starches, gums and/or stabilizers in dairy products like yogurts, ice cream and spreads to clean up labels.”


Dairy does the trick

While ingredients added to dairy products increase the offerings’ functional properties, dairy ingredients themselves also have health-promoting qualities.

One reason for dairy ingredients’ health halo is the popularity of clean-label products with ingredients consumers recognize. Consumers know what whey and milk proteins are, says Sutich, and don’t think they sound ultraprocessed.

“In the protein space for sports nutrition and adult nutrition, we are seeing a shift from items like caseinates and casein to ingredients like whey protein concentrate/isolate and milk protein concentrate/isolate as more consumer-friendly ingredients,” he says.

Some dairy ingredients also boast superfood status, thanks to their immunity-boosting properties. In this space, Farbest offers colostrum, lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase, Sutich explains.

Agropur provides highly purified whey protein ingredients, notes Rao, which draw out the health-promoting characteristics of dairy products. The company also created a dairy-based prebiotic.  

“Agropur also offers purified prebiotic protein called GlycoMacroPeptide (GMP) derived from fresh cheese whey,” he says. “GMP has been shown to have anti-viral activity, too, especially against rotavirus.”

According to Lindsey Ormond, director of nutrition and research for Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Milk Specialties Global (MSG), consumers have become more concerned with satiety as a result of weight gain they experienced during COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as the health issues that come with obesity. Dairy ingredients are proven to help with satiety.

“Proteins from milk can be an important part of this due to their excellent amino acid profile and easy digestibility,” she explains. “Whey protein fractions such as lactoferrin, colostrum and [milk fat globule membrane] have been shown to favorably modulate the immune system, including protecting against pathogens.” 

Additionally, whey proteins are seen as promoting immunity, Ormond notes, “and this is reflected in the demand for specialty whey proteins that can support immune function.

“With clinical trials showing that certain whey protein fractions such as lactoferrin and immunoglobulins may have a beneficial effect on immune function, the consumer is recognizing the role whey proteins can have in supporting their health and wellbeing goals,” she adds.

For its part, MSG offers NutriPro — a range of whey protein ingredients “with enhanced nutritional components, providing superior health benefits,” notes Ormond.

“These ingredients include lactoferrin-rich whey protein concentrate and isolate, alpha lactalbumin-rich whey protein isolate and IgG-enriched whey protein concentrate,” she points out.