Consumers want foods that aid gut health, but brands face a major challenge. How can they educate buyers about microbiome health benefits without getting into trouble with regulators?
“It’s no longer enough to just say ‘healthy,’” says Alon Chen, CEO and co-founder of Tastewise, an “AI platform for food brands.” “We are absolutely more critical of health claims in general. We want to know how, we want to know why and we want it backed by science.”
The term “healthy” is no longer resonating with consumers. Over 30% are looking for products with multifunctional benefits, according to research by Tastewise. They want more detail, on topics such as gut health, sleep improvement, brain function, anti-bloating and energy.
“Food is no longer just about nutrition, nor is it about general health,” says Flora Southey, editor at Food Navigator. “Consumers want more from the food they consume – and they want to be specific about it.”
What are the challenges and opportunities for brands trying to deliver gut health? A panel of food and nutrition experts tackled the issue during a Food Navigator webinar: “From Fermentation to Fortification: How is Industry Supporting Gut Health and Immunity?” Here are highlights.
There are trillions of microbes in our gut, but science has only scratched the surface of their power. Gut health is an ambiguous – and often confusing – subject for consumers.
Regulations on gut health claims are evolving. A year ago, the European Food Standard Authority asked food producers to help evaluate microbiome-based product claims.
“In order for us to assert ourselves in the industry, we have to be able to defend and support these claims,” says Anthony Finbow, CEO of Eagle Genomics, a software company incorporating microbiome research into their data analysis.
It’s “the dawn of a new age,” according to Finbow. Major food companies are now valued for delivering nutrition in addition to caloric content. “There is greater consumer understanding that food is a mechanism for better health.”
Southey feels brands need to do more for consumer education “I’m not convinced [the message is] getting to the consumer as well as it should be.”
Nutrition drink brand MOJU is attempting to tackle the regulatory stumbling block of health benefits on a label. Strict rules requiring detailed substantiation have resulted in few gut health claims“We’ve got a long way to go from an education point of view,” says Ross Austen, research and nutrition lead at MOJU.
MOJU can’t use the term “gut health,” but they can say a drink contains vitamin C or D, which have been proven to boost the immune system. They can’t say their drink is anti-inflammatory, but they can say it contains turmeric, known for its anti-inflammatory properties.
More consumers want the presumed gut health benefits of probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics to power their microbiome. Probiotics “have largely stolen the headlines over the past few years,” Austen says, but prebiotics are appearing in more and more products. MOJU puts prebiotic fiber in their drinks because probiotics are a challenge for packaged food products. Because probiotics contain live and active cultures, they must be refrigerated and their efficacy tested.
Ashok Dubey, Phd, senior scientist and lead for nutrition sciences at TATA Chemicals (a supplier of chemical ingredients to food and drink producers), agrees. Dubey feels that the benefits of probiotics have been diminished in the minds of consumers. He notes that when probiotics first began appearing in foods 20 years ago, they were claimed to be able to solve any and all health ailments.
“There’s a greater understanding that our gut microbiota is so complex, if the food we eat is so complex, then the solution we should provide should be a combination of all of this,” he says. Dubey is seeing more patents combining probiotics and prebiotics, a complex solution that he says looks at whole health.
But, he notes, any claim with -biotics must be validated by scientific research.
Traditional Foods vs. Clinical Trials
Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), takes issue with the need to validate every health claim with scientific research. “We shouldn’t displace a huge body of traditional knowledge in favor of pharmaceuticals,” she says.
Making health claims around -biotics has been challenging for the kombucha industry. “It doesn’t honor what food does for us nutritionally,” she adds. Today’s food industry is so heavily regulated that foods traditionally consumed by humans for centuries – like kombucha – can’t put a health claim on a label without proving benefits in a human clincal trial.
“It’s frustrating,” Crum says. ““In fact, because there is no definition of the word probiotic from a legal perspective, it leaves our brands vulnerable to be attacked by parasitic lawyers who just want to extract value from large corporations because they can.”
“In my opinion, we need to honor the fact that all traditionally fermented foods are probiotic by nature instead of saying ‘Well you need the research to prove it,’” she says.