Digestive health is one of the most successful dietary supplement categories today. Whether it’s gluten avoidance or probiotic usage, discussions of gastrointestinal (GI) health aren’t just trending on talk shows and wellness blogs; they’re fueling an entire category of functional foods, beverages, and ingredients that promise smoother gastrointestinal sailing.
As Julian Mellentin, director, New Nutrition Business (London), wrote last year in another trade publication, “It’s often overlooked how much consumers’ interest in good digestive health powers many other trends.” Product developers who do overlook interest in digestive health do so at their peril, for digestive health, Mellentin wrote, “is a benefit with wide appeal.”
How wide of an appeal? Marissa Gilbert, health and wellness analyst, Mintel (Chicago), notes that two-thirds of adults have experienced some species of gastrointestinal issue, “indicating a strong consumer base for the digestive-health market,” she says. And a dive into her company’s Global New Products Database (GNPD) reveals that as many as 16% of worldwide functional claims made between 2013 and 2015 spoke to digestion. As far as the global market value of the category goes, market researcher Euromonitor International pegged it at an impressive $70 billion in 2015 alone.
Such robust interest won’t surprise any of those who know gastro grief up close and personally. For, says Melissa DeVincenzo, chief marketing officer, TrueSelf Foods (Waccabuc, NY), “The pain and discomfort that come with gastrointestinal discomfort can wreak havoc on consumers’ quality of life.” Making matters worse, she adds, “Triggers associated with gastrointestinal discomfort can be difficult to identify, and treatment options limited.”
Factors like everyday stress, the postmodern tilt toward highly processed, fiber-poor diets, and the incontrovertible fact that none of us is getting any younger all compound the problem. The result: digestive health will be a concern going forward. As Euromonitor’s 2015 “Digestive Remedies in the US” report stated, “These modern tendencies have significantly increased the frequency of acute digestive ailments, such as indigestion, bloating, nausea, and diarrhoea."
Digestive Health = Whole Health
Fortunately for the afflicted, digestive distress is now worthy of dialogue. Once not fit for polite company, gut health has become easier to discuss, and that deepening discussion has made consumers more comfortable as contributors. Notes Megan DeStefano, probiotics marketing, DuPont Nutrition & Health (Madison, WI), “Consumers have always been bothered with digestive issues. But this more-public discussion has removed the taboo associated with it. Now consumers are less reluctant to share information with others who have similar issues.”
They’re less reluctant to share information with their clinicians, too, and the entire medical community—not just GI specialists—are realizing, along with the rest of us, that without digestive health, whole-body health is out of reach. As DeStefano says, “We’re seeing mounting evidence that healthcare professionals and consumers alike understand that good gut health can have benefits beyond the belly.”
That’s evidence that Mike Bush, senior vice president, Ganeden Biotech (Cleveland), and executive board president of the International Probiotics Association (IPA; Los Angeles), knows well. “Maintaining a healthy gut is unbelievably important, as the digestive system is ground zero for many of the body’s vital functions,” he says. “We know the role the gut plays in breaking down nutrients, but there’s growing evidence of a link between gut health and the proper function of the immune system, reduction in inflammatory processes, mood regulation, and metabolic processes.”
The more consumers learn about this gut-body connection, the more they value products that optimize the functioning of both. Further, though digestive-health supplements have long been mainstays of the sector, smart money now gravitates toward functional foods and beverages as naturally promoting healthy digestion.
The logic is elementary: If we know that some foods and drinks exacerbate digestive distress, it follows that “a chief solution can largely be attained through dietary management,” Gilbert says. What’s more, the food-first strategy fits with how health-aware consumers care for themselves today. Says Bush, “The beauty of functional foods is that consumers are able to get the desired health benefits from foods and beverages that they already enjoy without taking another pill.”
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 Mellentin J, “Key Trends in Functional Foods & Beverages for 2016,” Nutraceuticals World, vol. 18, no. 9 (November 2015): 34-38. http://www.nutraceuticalsworld.com/issues/2015-11/view_features/key-trends-in-functional-foods-beverages-for-2016