Within the digestive health category, probiotics are so popular that they have transcended from dietary supplements to ingredients in food and drinks. Probiotics, however, are only one piece of the digestive health puzzle. Slowly but surely, prebiotics are being recognized as a necessary component of digestive health. Driving this growth is an overall interest in fiber consumption.
“Innova Market Insights called out fiber as a key trend for 2019, noting that 44% of U.S. consumers were increasing their fiber consumption,” says Taylor Halstead, product manager for specialty carbohydrates, Cargill (Minneapolis, MN). “Those numbers track with consumer research from the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2019 Food & Health Survey, which noted that more than 85% of consumers view fiber as healthy.”
Consumer understanding of prebiotics is less pronounced but growing as more products hit the market and get media coverage. While there is surely a lot of room for prebiotic sales to grow, and for consumers to learn about prebiotics’ function, the market is seeing some traction—albeit, from a still-smaller sales base.
“In the first half of 2019, media coverage on prebiotics was 12% greater than the prior year for the same period. Social media is driving this increase,” explains Samantha Ford, business development director at AIDP (City of Industry, CA), citing data from Meltwater market research. “Many consumers are unaware of the role prebiotics play in digestive health; however, media coverage is helping to drive consumer interest.” Ford says that according to a recent Nutrition Business Journal report, in 2018 probiotic sales grew about 8% while prebiotic sales grew over 130%.
“Clearly, there is growing consumer interest in prebiotics,” Ford says. And let’s not forget: “Most consumer diets do not contain enough fiber.” For prebiotic firms, the challenge is educating consumers on how supplemental prebiotics can complement the diet, “without the effects of large amounts of fiber,” she says.
Prebiotic: An Increasingly Targeted Approach
The general nature of prebiotics is that they feed gut bacteria to promote healthy-bacteria growth. As the digestive category evolves and becomes more sophisticated, the notion—and exploration—of prebiotic supplementation is becoming much more selective in terms of targeting specific bacteria, both as a standalone supplement and in a synbiotic formulation that combines prebiotics and probiotics.
This targeted approach to prebiotics has the potential to profoundly change the digestive health space and shake up the probiotic category. “We are already seeing these concepts disrupt the market,” says Ford. “For example, ‘probiotic-free’ digestive health formulas are becoming more and more popular.”
Over time, should this targeted approach to prebiotics become more accepted, probiotic consumers may find themselves moving toward the novel prebiotics market, perhaps encouraging probiotic manufacturers to take the growing prebiotic space into stronger account—if they haven’t begun doing so already.
When Prebiotics Work Well…or Not
Prebiotics have a long history of helping to maintain the human microbiome, with mother’s milk being rich in over 200 types of oligosaccharides, one of the main prebiotic types. Our ancestors consumed a great deal of oligosaccharides by eating roots, tubers, and foraging for fruits and nuts, explains Kiran Krishnan, chief scientific officer of digestive-product brand Microbiome Labs (St. Augustine, FL). Eventually, it became thought that the type of prebiotic is an important factor in just how successfully these ingredients maintain the gut microbiome, Krishnan says.
For instance: A frequent complaint of prebiotics is intolerability, with some suffering from discomfort related to gas and bloating after consuming prebiotics. “The problem is that when you start using prebiotics that aren’t specific to certain groups of bacteria, you end up with food for bacteria that can be consumed and metabolized by lots of different groups of bacteria in the gut,” says Krishnan. That means that if one’s microbiome is already out of balance, some prebiotics may actually feed undesirable bacteria.
According to Krishnan, the ideal characteristic of a prebiotic is for it to have a high degree of polymerization (DP), which determines how far into the bowel the prebiotic will survive.
“A prebiotic with a high DP means it’s a very complex carbohydrate, and because of that complexity there is a very narrow range of bacteria that have the right enzymes to be able to break down and metabolize that carbohydrate,” he explains. “Most of those bacteria that tend to have very sophisticated enzymatic capability to break down complex carbs exist in the large bowel.” Akkermansia and Bifidobacteria are two bacterial strains that exist in the large intestine that are capable of breaking down complex carbohydrates. A high-DP prebiotic is less likely to get broken down by bacteria before it can do its job.
In contrast, prebiotics with low DP tend to be broken down by a wider range of bacteria and sooner in the bowel, causing overgrowth in the small intestine, which is particularly bad if someone is already suffering from small-intestine bacterial overgrowth.
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