Consumers seek targeted biotics over general microbiome support, experts stress

By Olivia Brown

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags microbiome Probiotic Gut health psychobiotics Prebiotic

Experts have asserted that “the consumer is ready” for biotics delivering targeted benefits as opposed to general microbiome support, amid a rising demand for psychobiotics and an increasing awareness of the gut-brain axis.

This was the key message from a panel discussion at the Active Nutrition Summit hosted by NutraIngredients in Amsterdam this week (9 – 11 October).  

Demand for psychobiotics

Ewa Hudson, director of insights at the biotics e-commerce analysis company Lumina Intelligence​, regarded the continued growth of the psychobiotics category.

She asserted: “Last year there was roughly 215 products on the market across 25 countries with a claim relating to psychobiotics, including stress and anxiety, cognitive function, and sleep.

“But the majority of these were very loose claims and they were not the main claim on the product, so they were very much hidden. Then we found around 30 to 40 ‘committed products’ with psychobiotics being included in the product brand name, such as ‘psychobrain’, ‘moodplus’.”

She added that a final category of products bridged the pharma boundary, with some European products observed to target migraines and autism in children.

Referring to data from a soon-to-be released Lumina report, she said that there are now 450 psychobiotic products, with 200 in Europe alone, and a strong 38% consumer category engagement.

“The largest areas were found to be stress and anxiety. But the biggest growth areas were for sleep, with 92% growth, so there’s definitely been a big response here.”

Mood was found to be the second fastest area for growth at 71% within the European psychobiotics category.

Targeted health demand

Sophie Medlin, consultant dietitian of City Dietitians and head of nutrition research at the probiotic brand Heights​, described the shift in demand for biotic support from targeting general microbiome health to wider-reaching targeted health areas.

She explained: “We would all be naïve to think that the probiotic market is staying in this general gut health space. When I’m working with my patients, I’m telling them to think about what the targeted benefits they are looking for in their probiotic supplements, and their other supplements. I also ask this question to the companies I develop probiotics for.

“I appreciate there are a lot of health claim restrictions, but there’s a lot of older biotic companies that just say ‘better gut health’ and other generic health claims. But I think the consumer is ready, and certainly the science is ready, for these targeted benefits.”

She added that patients have shown significant interest and awareness of the use of probiotics to support with their mental health, whilst particularly savvy and proactive patients knew of the gut-brain axis.

“Patients are very interested in this space of psychobiotics. The majority of people suffer with some form of low-level stress and anxiety, yet don’t have any form of stress management strategy. So this is something I have to think about as part of my clinical practice, as this stress will definitely be having an impact on their gut health and function.

“But there’s still this gap in consumer knowledge with regards to how psychobiotics work. So we need to focus on really communicating those messages and leading conversations about the gut-brain axis. And sometimes this does come down to the companies to educate the consumer so they can find the product,” Medlin asserted.

Biotic innovation

Dr. Jonathan Scheiman, co-founder and CEO of US probiotic company Fitbiomics​, drew attention to the prevalent demand from consumers for innovation.

“There’s a big consumer demand for innovation in the category. But, although there’s a lot of formulations out there, there’s not a lot of difference between in their benefits,” he emphasised.

Medlin agreed on the lack of product differentiation and pointed out: “Proprietary strains are very important. There’s lots of companies using strains that have the same name as well-known and researched strains, yet they are not genetically identical. So we’re in a situation where you have to question whether that strain has any benefit.

“There’s also the filler strains that are definitely doing nothing at all for the consumer and are just there to boost CFUs. We know that consumers associate a high CFU with a better product, which is not the case at all,” she warned.

Regarding prebiotics, she added that they may remain contentious for a while due to causing significant digestive disruption in patients with existing gut health issues.

“We need to find solutions in terms of prebiotics that are non-fermentable and won’t cause digestive discomfort, otherwise you won’t retain these customers,” she said.

Hudson added that whilst it has been observed that fibres such as inulin can trigger symptoms in IBS patients other types, including acacia fibre, might not.

“The range of prebiotics and fibres is growing quite fast, and there’s a range of new science and so more options for people to try as well,” she highlighted.

Scheiman added the importance of the sleep category for optimising cognition and performance.

He explained: “Sleep is the number one performance enhancing drug. The notion of decoding athletes with optimised sleep patterns to find out what microbes are driving that function is important. Form fits function, which leads to innovation in these functional categories.”

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