When is a non-digestible carbohydrate a prebiotic?

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Beneo's chicory inulin claim is the closest the industry has to a prebiotic claim so far. ©iStock/PhilippeDesoche
Beneo's chicory inulin claim is the closest the industry has to a prebiotic claim so far. ©iStock/PhilippeDesoche
Several health claims have been approved in Europe for prebiotic fibre ingredients, but none of the functionality has been directly attributed to their prebiotic properties. 

Since June of this year, manufacturers have been able to claim a “lower blood glucose rise”​ when using non-digestible carbohydrates as sugar replacers thanks to the publication of an article 13.5 claim in the EU Official Journal. 

Wheat and corn-derived soluble fibre Nutriose from Roquette is one of the carbohydrate forms able to take advantage of the glycaemic response claim, alongside Tereos’ Actilight fibre, Olygose’s oligosaccharide and chicory root fibres produced by Beneo, Sensus and Cosucra-Group Warcoing.

Asked whether many manufacturers had adopted the blood glucose claim since its approval, Roquette’s European marketing communications manager Marie Blondel said that six months was too short a time to see much change in the way products are presented. 

Clear consumer interest

However, she said that consumers - particularly those with diabetes or motivated by weight loss - are clearly interested in the blood glucose claim. 

“It’s going to be useful in special nutrition markets, and in particular, in the baking, dairy and beverage categories,” ​she told NutraIngredients. 

“We’re definitely seeing a substantial increase in demand because digestive health complaints are increasingly commonplace among consumers. Some analysts are predicting that the global prebiotic ingredients market will reach US$6.91bn [€6.34bn] in terms of value by 2022 and the European market reflects a healthy chunk of that.”​ 

Euromonitor data doesn’t paint quite as rosy a picture. The market research analyst put the Western European market for products containing prebiotics at just under $4m (€3.67m) in 2015.

It classes products as prebiotic if the word appears on the label, and tracked this data across five categories: gum, margarine and spreads, dairy-based yoghurt, powder milk and milk formula. 

Yoghurt was found to be by far the largest category for prebiotics, worth $1.76m (€1.61m) in retail sales in 2015. 

Prebiotics: Nothing to shout about

Overall, its data showed prebiotic messaging to be declining. Sales of products with a prebiotics claim in Western Europe have been on a downwards curve since peaking at almost $19m (€17.43m) in 2007. 

But confusingly, this doesn’t necessarily mean the use of prebiotic ingredients is declining, just that manufacturers aren’t using the term ‘prebiotic’ on-pack. 

This is hardly surprising given the current health claims situation for prebiotics in Europe - as yet, no health claims have been awarded to ingredients on the basis of their prebiotic properties. 

The term ‘prebiotic’, when used on a food label, is considered a health claim. With no approved health claims for prebiotics, even the use of this term contravenes EU law, which probably explains the dwindling number of products using prebiotics messaging. 

There has been some recognition of the prebiotic concept and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has come up with a definition of prebiotics as "a non-viable food component that confers a health benefit on the host associated with modulation of the microbiota”​. 

However, although carbohydrate forms like Roquette’s Nutriose and Beneo chicory root fibres are B2B marketed as prebiotic fibres, the blood glucose claim relates to their status as non-digestible carbohydrates - not prebiotics. 

Other claims have been approved under the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) for ingredients in this group of non-digestible carbohydrates too. In the same ruling as the blood glucose claim, Nutriose’s ability to reduce tooth demineralisation was confirmed. 

And in January of this year, the EU Commission authorised a 13.5 health claim with proprietary use for Beneo’s prebiotic chicory root fibre inulin and its ability to promote digestive health. The official wording for the claim is "chicory inulin contributes to normal bowel function by increasing stool frequency”.​ 

If it smells like a prebiotic…

The word ‘prebiotic’ was not cited in the ruling, but the science behind the claim is a very close match for the way in which the prebiotic mechanism is often described. 

“The authorisation confirms that Beneo's prebiotic fibre inulin contributes to normal bowel by increasing stool frequency without triggering diarrhoea. This is possible because inulin resists digestion in the small intestine and is fully fermented in the large intestine,” ​stated Beneo in a press release. 

In addition to the authorised 13.5 proprietary health claim, general health-related wellbeing claims under article 10.3 are also permitted for chicory. These include "chicory inulin promotes digestive health"​ and "chicory root fibre supports a healthy and balanced digestive system”.

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