Prebiotics are struggling to gain the respect and interest of consumers in a gut health and immunity market that has come to be dominated by probiotics, according to an influential industry pundit.
"Prebiotic is a confusing, me-too message and a me-too benefit, with no real point of difference that the average person can readily understand," writes Julian Mellentin in the marketing-oriented journal, New Nutrition Business. "That doesn't mean that suppliers of prebiotic fibres should despair, but it does mean that we'll see products that make prebiotic their primary benefit, such as Coca-Cola Minute Maid's recently-launched prebiotic juice [in the US], stay in a niche, as its rival Tropicana fibre-fortified brand has done, despite using an ingredient name - 'fibre' - that's better understood."
It's an analysis that comes despite healthy forecasts from some market researchers such as Frost & Sullivan which predicts the European market for prebiotic ingredients such as inulin will double from €90 million to €179.7 million by 2010.
Mellentin notes the lack of clarity and acceptance in the minds of consumers is evidenced by companies like Danone which employ prebiotic ingredients in probiotic products such as Activia without flagging their presence to consumers.
"These ingredients are 'prebiotic' - but Danone includes them in Activia as fat replacers and doesn't use the word 'prebiotic' on the pack or in any other communications. Danone will most likely have already worked out that using a word that's incomprehensible to most consumers will confuse them and bring no extra sales."
Dorothy Mackenzie, co-founder of Dragon, a branding consultancy, backed up the sentiment.
"Our own research in the past around this area has tended to find that people don't really understand what prebiotics are - neither the exact term, nor even this way of talking about the effect on the digestive system. There is certainly confusion with prebiotics."
European consumers had become accustomed to the probiotic message over 15 years, Mellentin said, via "a massive and continuous communication effort by the dairy industry."
Mellentin said that despite the wealth of science backing prebiotic ingredients, dairy and cereal products that had centred their marketing on their prebiotic benefit had all failed to make substantial market inroads
He observed that Coenzyme Q10 was also struggling to make headway as a food ingredient despite being similarly well-supported clinically.
A chilled, CoQ10-containing dairy beverage launched 18 months ago by Emmi had been withdrawn with the Swiss dairy blaming consumer unfamiliarity with the ingredient as one of the major reasons for the product's demise.