Immune health is the main focus of functional drinks, according to recent research.

Industry consultants Zenith International said late last week that immune health had overtaken weight management, vitality and beauty as the focus of functional drinks innovation in the first half of this year.

Key immune health priorities being targeted by companies were digestive health, physiological stress and cellular function, the consultant noted.

Consumers are responding enthusiastically, Zenith said, with a marked rise in the sales of drinks based on green tea, antioxidant 'superfruits' such as pomegranate or other fruits like cranberries that can also be strongly marketed for their immunity benefits.

Of 120 new products tracked in the first half of this year, 24% placed emphasis on their potential to strengthen the immune system, Zenith said. This trend became apparent in the second half of 2005 when immune health accounted for 23% of new product development, the consultant added.

Alongside this increase in the number of products addressing specific health issues, there has also been a substantial level of investment in functional beverages designed for specific age groups and in beverages with a more natural image and feel, the consultant noted.

"Consumers are increasingly proactive in their attitude towards wellness and wellbeing", said Jenny Foulds, editor of Zenith's functionaldrinks newsletter.

"Recognising this, beverage manufacturers are now shifting more towards positive action and prevention rather than cure.  As companies pack more and more targeted ingredients into new products, the distinction between wellness, enriched and nutraceutical products is becoming progressively blurred."