You’ve likely started to see the claims already. Menus boasting “immune boosting” qualities have been popping up left and right. While this trend is not new, we’ve seen an uptick in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many customers are looking to their food to help protect them from getting sick. It can be tempting to just call out any of your menu items that are high in vitamin C, but there’s much more involved in supporting a healthy immune system.

There are many Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) laws and regulations that affect the types of claims you can make. These can differ depending on whether you’re a food manufacturer or a restaurant. Both the FDA and FTC have goals of protecting consumers from false or misleading claims made on food labels or advertisements. A big red flag to those two groups is companies that claim their foods can prevent or cure certain diseases. A different approach is a “structure/function claim.” These promote a nutrient or specific diet and its impact on a particular body system. These are a lot more common on foods, but still come with their own set of rules. The claim must be supported by sound scientific evidence and may require pre-approval by the FDA.

Scientists are always learning and exploring more about the immune system and how to make it stronger. The immune system is complex and involves many different systems of the body. This of particular interest to our in-house Registered Dietitian, Beth Winthrop. She was able to give us a great lesson on food’s impact on your immune health:

“What does your digestive system do for you? Just get rid of waste? Think again! Your digestive system houses 10-100 times more cells of microorganisms than you have cells in your body. Your digestive system also makes up more than half of your immune system in the form of ‘GALT,’ or gut-associated lymphoid tissue. You’ve probably heard about your microbiome. This is the population of microorganisms that live in your body, mainly in your gut. So, what dietary steps can we take to support our immune function by keeping our GALT healthy and supporting the beneficial microorganisms that live with us?

The good news is that the dietary guidelines for good cardiac health, and prevention of diabetes and cancer, are the same that keep our gut healthy!  The bad news?  Those home-baking skills we’ve developed during quarantine may be increasing sugar and saturated fat in our diets. This is bad for our hearts and our guts!  Any recipe that starts with, ‘first cream butter and sugar’ might be a once a week only treat. 

So, what foods help support immune function through our healthy guts?  Soluble and fermentable fibers such as those found in beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables help the cells of our colon produce short chain fatty acids (SCFA), which is their preferred fuel.  ‘Prebiotic’ fiber supplements also include these soluble fibers, but start with fiber-rich whole foods.  Those colorful antioxidant foods like blueberries, grapes and tea?  Also great at encouraging beneficial microorganisms! 

How do you wrap that all together?  Try a Mediterranean diet like the DASH eating plan, proven to reduce hypertension. Support your local farmers and fishermen and learn healthy new recipes.  Keep those beneficial microorganisms happy and they’ll help keep your immune system strong!”

Beth Winthrop, M.S. R.D.
Food Allergy Specialist for MenuTrinfo

While there’s no single nutrient or food that will strengthen your immune system, there are definitely meals you can promote as being part of an overall healthy diet. Don’t get lost in the web of regulations and science. Work with a team of experts to help explore these new menu options.