Is the public turning to healthier foods as a result of coronavirus?

As millions of people are now confined to their homes due to the spread of COVID-19, concerns over physical health and mental wellbeing could spark new consumer food trends

24 March 2020
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image credit: marilyna/Getty Images

These are unprecedented times for the food industry. COVID-19 has decimated the eating-out sector in the short term, wiping out thousands of jobs in the process after cafes, pubs and restaurants were forced to close their doors to the public. Contrarily, the UK’s biggest supermarkets have kicked off a large-scale hiring spree in an effort to keep their shelves well stocked and the country fed.

This unique situation is already leading to some interesting new food trends too – including a focus on healthy eating.

With millions of people now largely confined to their homes on a day-to-day basis, purchasing habits have altered and getting exercise, as well as sunshine, has become increasingly more difficult. As a result, health (both physical and mental) is understandably now front of mind for many people.

According to data insights provider Tastewise, food and beverages for the immune system, stress relief and medicinal benefits have been on the rise since the outbreak of coronavirus. “In this time of global pandemic, consumers are increasingly aware of their health and the practices necessary to defend it,” the report said.

“While the last year has seen consumers increasingly turn to food and beverage for functional benefits, Tastewise is seeing staggering growth in the trend during this time of coronavirus.”

The figures from Tastewise – which tracks millions of social media interactions along with recipes and online menu databases - revealed a 66% month-on-month increase in food said to benefit the immune system. For example, elderberry has witnessed a 108% increase in consumer conversations at home about the immune system, while pickles are up 18.5% as an immunity-boosting ingredient.

Boost to the system

The spike in interest also follows a report from last year which picked out immune system support as the most popular reason for consumers when buying a health/lifestyle product.

Increased interest in foods said to boost immune health has led to a rise in sales for some companies focused in this area too. Healthy recipe box service Mindful Chef, for instance, recently reported a 452% spike in new recipe box customers and a 387% spike in frozen meal sales (based on sales week on week).

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable wholesaler Natoora has opened its delivery service to the public having previously only made its delivery app available to those working in the hospitality sector. Many other health-focused brands have also extended their service as supermarkets struggle to keep up with demand.

And according to Derek Sarno, Tesco’s director of plant-based innovation, developers should be focusing on plant-based produce and dishes “now more than ever”.

“Most people now working in more isolated scenarios as opposed to the office or development kitchens with groups of people,” he tells Food Spark.

“Plant-based foods are loaded with vitamins and nutrients that boost the immune system, [including] whole foods such as greens, beans and grains, potatoes and the loads of variety of veg, keep. It’s time we adjusted our diet to the 21st century and there has never been a more crucial time to do so.”

Devil is in the detail

However, while the wider may well be searching for easy fixes so their immune system is primed to fight the COVID-19 virus, experts claim no single food will do the job.

In its coronavirus guidance, the Association for UK Dieticians says people cannot “boost” their immune system through diet alone, and no specific food or supplement” will prevent people from catching COVID-19/coronavirus. They also point out that the European Food Safety Authority have not authorised any claim for a food or food component in the UK to be labelled as protecting against infection. 

Nutritionist, and regular Food Spark contributor, Dr Laura Wyness agrees with this assessment. “It’s quite a misleading term as a boosted immune system is one that is responding to something such as a food allergen or disease-causing microorganisms. However, a healthy diet can support the function of your immune system.”

Instead, Wyness urges people to make sure they’re eating a balanced diet, while incorporating more key nutrients vital to a healthy immune system. These include vitamins A, C, D, iron, zinc and selenium.

Alex Hayes, one half of food consultancy firm Harris & Hayes, also agrees there are no easy answers, but says that doesn’t mean food operators or suppliers shouldn’t be aiming to tap into any new health trends.

“There might be an element of immune boosting among consumers, but I don’t know exactly how much this will help given with this type of virus,” she tells Food Spark. “However, it shouldn’t stop people trying to eat more healthily."

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