Gut Health Hot Food Trend, But Consumers Confused Over Science and Additives

/ / New Products, Science

As more people battle digestive problems, they’re turning to brands offering gut health solutions. Digestive health is the third most sought after health benefit in the latest International Food Information Council Food & Health Survey, behind weight loss and energy.

Though it’s a hot topic, it’s a space challenged with unsupported health claims and confusing ingredient additives. During a panel hosted by Food Navigator, four industry leaders shared insight into the growing gut health category.

“What we’ve learned is that many of our consumers come into our brand typically with serious, long term digestive health challenges. Bloating, regularity challenges, IBS,” said Mitchell Kruesi, senior brand manager for Goodbelly, which creates probiotic drinks and snacks. “They’ve tried supplements in the past, but weren’t super enthusiastic about them because often times taking a supplement felt medicinal to them. After that, they continue to seek out other probiotic options that are both effective, but also food-based so that it’s easy to fit in their routine.”

Demystifying Probiotics

Plagued with health issues and fed-up with pills, consumers are desiring food brands that aid digestive health. Flavor, though, is key.

“That delicious taste…it sets up an everyday usage routine, which is critical with probiotics,” Kruesi said.

Probiotics is a confusing territory for consumers. Should probiotics be consumed in pills or as a strain added to food? How much should be taken?

Elaine Watson, Food Navigator editor, quoted GT Dave, founder of GT Kombucha: “In my mind, anything raw and fermented deserves to use the term ‘probiotic.” Watson asked the panelists if there’s a perception that all fermented foods contain probiotics because they contain live, active cultures – and should food advertising probiotics be verified by clinically proven studies?

“I think consumers are quite confused still around the whole topic, in all honestly. Live, active cultures are used to make fermented food beverages – but unlink probiotics, they’re typically not studied and shown to provide a health benefit,” said Angela Grist, Activia US marketing director. Really in order to be considered a probiotic, they would need to meet the criteria of survival and research-validated health benefits and also this point around strain specificity.”

Grist said probiotics need to survive the passage through the digestive track to the colon. Activia has five survival studies showing the benefits of probiotics.

Ben Goodwin, co-founder of Olipop, added he’s conducted genetic assays around the underlying culture banks of fermented food and beverages and “there have definitely been organisms in the culture banks which are deleterious for human health. So not everything that’s fermented is automatically good for human health, there’s all sorts of different biological modes that organisms can interact with each other and some become parasitic or become determinantal to your probiotic when consumed, so something to keep in mind.”

Note that the panel did not feature a raw, fermented food brand; the companies included on the panel all add probiotic strains to their food and drink product.

In a separate interview with The Fermentation Association, Maria Marco, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, said there is a lot of confusion around probiotics, even among industry representatives. Marco, though, agrees with Grist and Goodwin. She says clinical studies on fermented foods are necessary.

“Although it might be possible to separate out the individual components of foods for known health benefits (e.g. vitamin C), the benefits of many foods are likely the result of multiple components that are not easily separated,” Marco said. “Yogurt consumption is a great example of a fermented food that, through longitudinal studies, was shown to be inversely associated with CVD risk.”

In one of Marco’s studies at UC Davis titled “Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond,” Marco and her research associates concluded that fermented foods: are “phylogenetically related to probiotic strains,” “an important dietary source of live microorganisms,” and the microbes in fermented foods “may contribute to human health in a manner similar to probiotics.” The study adds: “Although only a limited number of clinical studies on fermented foods have been performed, there is evidence that these foods provide health benefits well-beyond the starting food materials.”

Educating Consumers

The panel said that the food industry is responsible for displaying integrity in their marketing on probiotic benefits.

“We believe it’s critical for leading brands in the space…to really educate consumers on, first, what probiotics are,” said Kruesi with Goodbelly. Consumers are seeking out probiotics for a specific health benefit, but most don’t know what strain they need to address their issue, he noted.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that aid the digestive system by balancing gut bacteria.

Currently, the demographic of consumers buying products geared toward gut health are millennial females in coastal cities. Both Activia and Olipop sell to more women than men (Activia customers are 60 percent female and 40 percent male; Olipop customers are 55 percent female and 45 percent male).  

Goodwin said Olipop is hoping to tap into the rapidly declining soda market. Soda is a $65 billion industry, with 90 percent household penetration. But more consumers are turning to healthier options than unnatural, sugar-filled soda.

“We’ve tried to take on the extra responsibility as a brand of formulating something that’s spun forward, delicious and really approachable so that we can meet a real health need in a way that’s actually supported by research,” Goodwin said. “(Olipop) is not only low sugar, low calorie, it also has this digestive health function but obviously doesn’t taste like vinegar because it’s not a kombucha.”

Solving Digestive Stress

Products by Activia, Goodbelly, Olipop and Uplift Food (the fourth panel member) are “meant to be a mass solution for the lack of fiber prebiotics and nutritional diversity in the modern diet,” Goodwin said. Fiber contains prebiotics, which aid probiotics.

The USDA’s dietary guidelines recommend adult men require 34 grams of fiber, while adult women require 28 grams of fiber (depending on age). The reality, though, is that most Americans get about half the recommended fiber a day, only 15 grams. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 60-70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases.

Compare that to the diet of hunter-gatherers, who eat about 100-150 grams of fiber each day and maintain incredibly healthy guts or microbiome. The microbiome is the community of commensal microorganisms in our intestines, fed by fiber, probiotics and prebiotics.

“As it stands now, basically we’re putting in a starvation system for a lot of the microorganisms currently in your gut,” Goodwin said. “The average industrialized consumer has about 50 percent less diversity and abundance of beneficial microorganisms than the hunger-gatherers alive on the planet tonight.”

Future of Gut Health Products

Grist with Activia said probiotics need to be consumed in adequate, regular amounts to provide health benefits, or else probiotics will not consume the digestive track.

Kara Landau, dietitian and founder for Uplift Foods which makes prebiotic foods, added that each individual has a unique bacterial make-up, and providing diverse food to support the microbiome is critical.

Landau said the future of gut health probiotics will be selling a specific probiotic strain, one that a consumer can target for their desired health benefit. Prebiotics – “the fuel for the probiotics” – are also key, and a new part of the digestive health puzzle that brands need to communicate and simplify for consumers.

“Prebiotics are still very much in their infancy when it comes to consumer understanding,” Landau said. “Seeing them alongside probiotics enhances the clarity of their benefits.”