As the coronavirus started to spread across the U.S. last year and consumers grew increasingly concerned about staying healthy, Uncle Matt's Organic wanted to develop a new beverage that would support the immune system.
CEO Matt McLean said the drink company started to look into ingredients to enhance its popular organic orange juice. After researching, McLean said the team landed on elderberry because of its "powerful bioflavonoids" like quercetin, which some say has potential health benefits.
Elderberries are the deep purple fruit of the elderberry shrub and have a history of use in folk medicine for treating sicknesses like colds. Some experts have said the berries and flowers of elderberry are packed with antioxidants and vitamins that can boost the immune system and have the potential to tame inflammation, but studies have found that the effectiveness varies.
In about four months, Uncle Matt's was able to create a beverage with organic orange juice and elderberry that had 300% of the recommended daily dose of vitamin C, 50% of vitamin D and 25% for zinc to support immunity and wellness. In late October, the drink debuted with the name: Ultimate Immune.
"It really was kind of a no-brainer — like wow, this is an ultimate immune beverage — so the name is very fitting," McLean said. "It's been very well received. People are looking for things to support their immune system on a daily basis that's not in a pill form, and this is just a delicious beverage and you can have it in a variety of ways."
But Uncle Matt's is not the only one looking to add the immunity-boosting berry to its portfolio. SPINS data emailed to Food Dive showed that elderberry use across food and beverage categories like juice, candy and fruit spreads increased 124.6% in the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1.
As the focus on immunity-boosting foods and beverages grows during the pandemic, interest in the purple berry has skyrocketed and expanded well beyond its use in syrups and supplements. Companies and analysts expect that growth to accelerate in 2021.
More companies add elderberry to labels
Beyond Better Foods recently debuted Enlightened Fruit Infusions, which are frozen fruit bars infused with adaptogens, plant-based substances associated with reducing inflammation and promoting stress relief. One of the flavors is coconut with elderberry, hibiscus and aloe. Karma Wellness Water also debuted Elderberry Starfruit as a new flavor in the U.S.
These launches come as more research connects elderberries to better health. Although no published research studies have evaluated consuming elderberry for COVID-19, a review of five studies last year found that when taken within 48 hours of general onset cold and flu symptoms, the berry could reduce their length and severity.
Outside of the potential health benefits, elderberry's color and taste have also attracted companies and consumers alike.
McLean said Uncle Matt's Ultimate Immune drink has quickly drawn shopper attention on shelves for its dark purple color. It has an elderberry grape taste with an orange juice finish, which he described as somewhat tart, but with sweet notes. From Publix to Kroger, retailer interest quickly kicked off and has grown, he said.
Ontario-based Nubia Food and Beverage also chose elderberry as an ingredient for its signature Nuba Tisane drink, which is brewed from whole hibiscus flowers. President Amal Soliman said that since Canada has elderberry suppliers and the berry is well known in the region for its immune system benefits, the company decided to create its Elderberry Hibiscus Tisane, which brews together elderberry, hibiscus and raisins without additional sweeteners.
Soliman said the drink has been popular during the pandemic and even sold out on the company's website. Nubia, which ships to Canada and the U.S., is shipping its first stock of Elderberry Hibiscus Tisane at the end of the month to Cost Plus World Market, a specialty retail chain in the U.S.
At the Specialty Food Association's Winter Fancy Food Show in 2020, Nuba Tisane was identified as part of a tea trend to watch. Soliman said the company's products were very popular at the trade show and it generated significant demand in the U.S.
"There is going to be a trend going forward for elderberries. I don't think there are too many beverages that have elderberry in it; usually people get elderberry as an extract," Soliman said.
But the competition is growing. In 2019, Atoka, a brand from Ocean Spray's innovation incubator, launched a line of plant-based drinks with one herbal blend featuring elderberry. Confectioners have also used the berry in powder form for its coloring and nutrients.
More products boasting elderberry on their labels are likely to roll out in the years ahead. The elderberry market is expected to grow by about $149 million from 2020 to 2024 at an annual rate of more than 5%, according to Technavio.
A boom for ingredients with benefits
"[Elderberry] is a little bit on the fringe but becoming more mainstream," McLean said. "A lot of people are just now more concerned about their overall well being and more aware of their overall well being and that food can be medicine."
Kara Nielsen, director of Food & Drink at WGSN, a trend forecasting company under Ascential, said that elderberry is common in health stores among cough suppressants and tinctures, but it has become more recognized. WGSN identified immunity-supporting ingredients as a key trend for 2021 and spotlighted elderberries in a report.
"As immunity demands expand, add elderberries to categories that support regular use, such as concentrated syrups to flavor still or sparkling water, fruit-juice glazes for breakfast cereal and jams for morning toast or waffles," the WGSN report said. "Pair them with adaptogens in snacks or chocolate to meet the dual needs of combating stress and improving the body's ability to fight illness."
According to the Innova Consumer Survey 2020, six out of 10 global consumers are looking for products to support their immune health, and 54% saying they’ve spent time educating themselves on these types of ingredients and practices.
Lu Ann Williams, director of insights and innovation at Innova Market Insights, said elderberry is "absolutely on-trend for immunity." She expects continued broader interest in more ingredients with these types of claims in 2021.
"Consumers tell us that getting enough sleep and more physical activity is important for boosting their immunity. There is an opportunity to make a link between sleep, exercise and nutrition and immunity. I don’t think you only have to focus on an ingredient that has a very narrow immunity benefit," Williams said. "Ingredients like protein or caffeine can be linked to promoting physical activity which contributes to improved immunity. Ingredients like L-theanine and magnesium [can be promoted to aid] sleep. But chamomile tea or chocolate can also be promoted for relaxation and calming moments of the day to wind down. Immunity is an opportunity that can be big and broader than just taking vitamin C or zinc."