Once consumers wrapped their heads around probiotics, it was only a matter of time before the “good gut bugs” became a bona fide phenomenon. So the conventional wisdom on prebiotics—the plant fibers that feed those good gut bugs—was that they’d follow a similar gilded path to mainstream popularity. After all, fiber on the whole has seen its star rise thanks not just to its undisputed health benefits but to the ease with which manufacturers can now add it to everything from waffles to water. So consumers have every reason to pay attention to prebiotics.
“Unfortunately,” says Mark Thurston, president, AIDP Inc. (City of Industry, CA), “they aren’t paying enough attention.” Research his company commissioned found that only about 30% of participants “had some understanding around prebiotics and their health benefits”—which is a slim slice of the consumer-attention pie, at best.
But viewed another way, it’s also evidence that the prebiotic sector has room to grow. And grow it will, industry watchers insist. As prebiotic science continues to mount, and “with more probiotic products adding prebiotics for better and faster effectiveness,” Thurston says, “eventually the message will get out that prebiotics are necessary precursors for probiotics, acting as a ‘fertilizer’ of sorts to prepare the gut to use probiotics most effectively.”
Prebiotics could do worse than serve as “gut groundskeepers” these days. That’s because gut health is definitely a thing. As Julio R. López, PhD, nutritional research and innovation manager, WILD Flavors & Specialty Ingredients (Chicago), says, Mintel data show that three out of four Americans rank maintaining a healthy digestive system as “very important,” and that the number of new-product launches bearing digestive-health claims rose a whopping 75% globally in 2010–2014.
“As consumers become more conscious of their overall health, they’re adopting a holistic approach that includes watching their diets, exercising more, and taking a preventive stance” that leads them to fiber, López says. “With 70% of the body’s immune system residing in the digestive tract, maintaining digestive health is crucial to the body’s overall wellbeing.” Indeed, none other than the National Cancer Institute reports that increased intake of dietary fiber correlates with lower risk of cardiovascular-, infectious-, and respiratory-disease deaths.1
Not Your Average Fiber
And this is just garden-variety fiber we’re talking about; the prebiotic variety offers yet an entirely additional set of health-and-wellness benefits of its own. What are they? Richard Staack, PhD, MBA, vice president, research and commercial development, Prinova USA (Carol Stream, IL), lists among prebiotics’ “useful properties” the “stimulation of intestinal transit; change in colonic microflora contributing to normal stool consistency and the prevention of diarrhea and constipation; a reduction in the level of triglycerides in blood and the liver; and improved nutrient absorption and production of B-complex vitamins”—all of which, he adds, “collectively leads to improvements in the immune system.”
But while all prebiotics are dietary fibers, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all dietary fibers are prebiotic. The seminal work2 on the subject strictly defines a prebiotic as an ingredient that 1) resists gastric acidity, hydrolysis by mammalian enzymes, and absorption in the upper gastrointestinal tract; 2) undergoes fermentation by intestinal microflora; and 3) selectively stimulates the growth and/or activity of “intestinal bacteria potentially associated with health and well-being”—that is, probiotics. So while “you see a lot of misuse” of the term in the market, says Anke Sentko, vice president, regulatory affairs and nutrition communication, Beneo (Morris Plains, NJ), if a fiber doesn’t meet those standards, it’s simply not prebiotic.
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- Park Y et al., “Dietary fiber intake and mortality in the NIH-AARP diet and health study,” Archives of Internal Medicine, vol. 171, no. 12 (June 27, 2011): 1061-1068
- Gibson GR et al., “Dietary modulation of the human colonic microbiota: Introducing the concept of prebiotics,” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 125, no. 6 (June 1995): 1401-1412