What began as undoubtedly a more niche category of health thanks to an understanding of digestive health that has only truly accelerated in recent years, the category even has its own TikTok hashtag - #guttok - so it’s fair to say that the topic of the gut microbiome has achieved – or is certainly on its way to - multi-generational cut through.
At the same time, prebiotics have emerged as a dynamic part of this health-conscious revolution. Why? Because this type of dietary fibre nourishes the good bacteria that reside naturally in the gut and is intrinsically linked with supporting a healthy gut microbiome. And crucially, consumers are taking note.
According to recent research, ‘prebiotic’ has become the most frequently used microbiome-related Google search term, ahead of digestion and immunity. What’s more, consumers appear to be increasingly well-informed with ingredient specific prebiotic searches, such as GOS (galactooligosaccharides) and FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides), also reportedly on the rise.
So, what’s behind this surge in interest – and have prebiotics settled into more mainstream nutrition status?
Consumers are following their gut
There is growing awareness that the health benefits of a balanced gut microbiome go far beyond just supporting digestion. Associated with everything from tackling obesity to regulating inflammatory skin conditions and supporting cardiovascular health, this living ecosystem of microorganisms has enormous influence on many different aspects of our health.
When it comes to fighting infections, for example, we now know that most of the immune system is found in the gut – believed to be around 70%. We also know that since a number of beneficial bacteria can support immune function, having a diverse population of gut microbes, with plenty of these important microbes, helps the body’s natural defences - the immune system.
This understanding is particularly resonant with consumers in the wake of Covid-19, as immune function support maintains a high priority position on the health agenda.
Emerging research into the role of the gut microbiome in areas such as mental wellbeing, cognitive health and mood also appears to be having an impact.The key here is the bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain, referred to as the gut-brain axis.
The term is both neatly concise and consumer-friendly and could play a key part in the ongoing success of the prebiotic category, particularly as this exciting field of science is starting to unlock the secrets of this complex network of signalling pathways.
Early evidence from one recently published study suggests that GOS prebiotics may help adults cope with stress and relieve milder forms of anxiety. In addition, there are many other fascinating areas under investigation, such as the impact of a particular bacteria on sleep quality and how certain types of fibre, including dietary fibre, may improve cognitive performance.
In many ways, it’s not surprising that more and more consumers are looking for ways to adapt diet and lifestyle in the quest for a more favourable balance of bacteria in the gut. An impressive 56% globally are reportedly planning to address their digestive health over the next 12 months, which speaks to growing consumer proactivity about the nutritional choices they make.
To capitalise on this abundant opportunity as prebiotics continue to make the jump from niche to mainstream, formulators need to develop food and drink products that speak directly to these concerns. It’s important to note that consumers are looking for products that have proven health benefits and are backed by strong science with specificity.
Demonstrating this in action, we can see a great example from Food & Drink Federation (FDF) studies. The organisation found that following a comprehensive awareness campaign that included specific health claims surrounding fibre, a positive change was seen in fibre intake. In short, scientific study has the capacity to affect real public health change, if applied in a way that connects with consumer needs.
For formulators, it’s a question of creating everyday products with ingredients that consumers trust to benefit digestive health or, more specifically, improve the diversity of the gut microbiome. So, the fact that prebiotics tick both these boxes certainly helps to explain the flourishing global market and the food and drink industry’s significant market share.
Rising star in formulation
Prebiotics are climbing the consumer agenda, with well documented rising global sales. A key element for formulators choosing their functional ingredients is understanding which categories are capturing public imagination. As such, prebiotics are becoming one of the most quickly established and trusted ways to improve digestive health, with awareness and adoption only set to grow.
From a formulation point of view, prebiotics also have much to offer. Perhaps one of the strongest manufacturing-led benefits is their stability under different processing conditions, which is a distinct advantage compared to the technical challenges of formulating with live probiotic bacteria.
Equally important - if not more so - is that the benefits of prebiotics are supported by robust science. Brands need to be confident that products positioned on this platform will have a positive impact on digestive health.
This is why our prebiotic branded ingredient, Bimuno GOS, is not just versatile and suitable for a wide range of applications, it’s also the most studied commercially available prebiotic of its kind, backed by over 100 scientific publications and more than 20 clinical trials.
For any functional ingredient, the leap from niche to mainstream takes consumer awareness, sales activation, strong growth potential and the flexibility to deliver performance across multiple potential applications. Taking all of these factors into account, it is clear that prebiotics are making the important move into more mainstream awareness and use, which indicates a very clear path forward for health and nutrition brands to develop next-gen prebiotic products.