Immune health has never been more important than it is today. Cultured dairy products are uniquely positioned to address this important health trend. 

To start with, the nutrient density of milk helps to improve overall nutritional status, but more specifically, there are components of milk that contribute to immunity. Many of the nutrients that we see added to products for immune health are naturally occurring in milk. 

Many proteins in milk have bioactive properties that contribute to immunity, including immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase, and others. The lactose and oligosaccharides in milk also support the microbiome of the gastrointestinal tract, which is linked to immune health. A serving of whole milk also contains 49% of the daily reference intake (DRI) for vitamin D, 7.6% for vitamin A, 17.7% for vitamin B5, 6.8% for vitamin B6, 44.6% for vitamin B12, 6.5% for selenium, 8.9% for zinc and 1.0% for vitamin E. 

Culturing milk adds even more to its immune-health contributions. The lactic cultures added to milk to make products such as yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, and fermented milks produce fermentation products such as bioactive peptides. These peptides provide immunomodulatory, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral activities. 

Add immunity-enhancing benefits

A search of new product introductions worldwide over the last two years reveals more than 800 spoonable/drinking yogurts and fermented beverages with immune-health positioning, according to Innova Market Insights. Many of these have added probiotics, which have a strong history of supporting the gut microbiome and contributing to immunity. Kefir often contains a higher number and variety of probiotics than a typical drinking yogurt. 

Specific probiotic strains have had positive impacts on treating acute infectious diarrhea or preventing some allergic diseases such as atopic eczema or dermatitis. These probiotics can also increase the immunogenicity of orally administered vaccines such as rotavirus, polio, cholera, and influenza. 

In addition to probiotics, we see more products adding specific vitamins, minerals, prebiotics, and even bioactive proteins to improve their immunity-enhancing properties. Some of the products contain combinations of added vitamins C, D, A, E, B5, B6, and B12, at levels up to 100% of the DRI. 

Chicory root fiber and other oligosaccharides are by far the most common types of prebiotics used in these cultured products to help support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. In countries outside the United States, there are new products with immune-health positioning that contain ingredients such as lactoferrin (Romania) or immunoglobulin-containing colostrum powder (South Korea), both very new to the cultured products world. 

If you are a lover of yogurts and fermented milks already and are interested in supporting your immune system, there are likely to be even more products available to you in the future. And there likely will continue to be plenty of product development opportunities in this space.

Kimberlee (K.J.) Burrington is director of training, education, and technical development for the American Dairy Products Institute.