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To answer this question, one must understand the key strengths of each.
In a rapidly evolving market, it’s essential that brands can flex, shift, and adapt to meet the needs of today’s consumer through their new product development process. For businesses in the nutraceutical and health categories, this means a sharper focus on digestive health.
Around the globe, gut health awareness is on the rise as consumers get more engaged with their own health and more proactive with learning. This drive is propelling the gut health product category forward and creating enormous commercial potential for brands and their formulators.
In modern-day nutraceutical formulation, two of the most abundant paths of digestive health development are in prebiotics and probiotics as functional active ingredients. Probiotics rose to prominence over a decade ago, but while prebiotics are newer on the scene, the prebiotic fiber category is making significant waves. Prebiotics are projected to see a compound annual growth rate of over 11% globally to 2026, according to intelligence firm Facts & Factors.1
For today’s brands, which approach holds more commercial potential in the face of a rapidly expanding market? It’s not a simple question to answer, but key to understanding where the opportunities lie is understanding the strengths of each approach through the supply chain, and in the hands of consumers and end users.
Understanding the Similarities and Differences
To identify the similarities and differences between probiotics and prebiotics, we need to first lay out the fundamentals of gut health. Inside the large intestine, there is a community of bacteria that together with fungi, viruses, and other organisms are known as the gut microbiome. Numbering in their trillions, the bacteria in this complex ecosystem can be beneficial, non-beneficial, or pathogenic.
The reason we refer to beneficial bacteria as such is that through comprehensive study, these bacteria are known to have a positive influence on health. Studies have revealed that good bacteria in the gut can support areas such as immune health, gastrointestinal and digestive health, mental wellbeing, and more.
Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria which can be added to products such as supplements or functional food and beverages as an active ingredient. They can be single-strain or multistrain complexes. Popular mainstream examples include fermented foods such as kefir and kimchi.
In contrast, a prebiotic is an inert non-digestible fiber that acts as nutrients for the good bacteria already present in the gut, encouraging them to thrive. Some prebiotics are found naturally in certain foods, and others are only available as a standalone ingredient.
With both prebiotics and probiotics available as viable and attractive functional ingredients in formulation, there is an abundance of commercial opportunities for brands to engage with a proactive audience.
Because both prebiotics and probiotics share a similar desired outcome of creating a more favorable composition in the gut microbiome, both can play a significant role in new product development.
How Do Prebiotics and Probiotics Compare in Application?
One of the biggest advantages to prebiotics over probiotics is their versatility by virtue of being a substrate rather than an organism
Prebiotic ingredients tend to be extremely stable. They can withstand heat and acid environments, both of which are common in the nutraceutical and functional food manufacturing processes. This stability also gives more flexibility in terms of storage and handling, with prebiotic ingredients generally enjoying a longer shelf life than their probiotic counterparts.
A major drawback in probiotic formulation is that the beneficial microbes must reach the gut microbiome intact in order to exert a positive effect on the host. This can be challenging to ensure through complex manufacturing processes and the digestive system. Survivability must be accounted for, which adds limitations in the formulation process.
Conversely, a prebiotic dietary fiber is a material, rather than a live organism. It isn’t perished or damaged on its way to the gut, which provides a much wider spectrum of possibilities in formulation and application. This creates a more expansive range of options when developing new products and enriching or refining existing ranges.
In short, prebiotics and probiotics both aim to increase the proportion of beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome, but prebiotics offer the versatility that formulators require in a rapidly evolving consumer-led market.
Commercially Leveraging Prebiotics and the Gut-Brain Axis
The gut microbiome is incredibly complex, and we are constantly learning more about what it does and how it does it. Naturally, as we uncover more, we get a clearer picture of how prebiotics can be used in commercially successful products and formulations.
An interesting example in this field is the potential of prebiotics to support mental health or cognition. As mental wellbeing continues to climb the public health agenda, prebiotics could provide a valuable tool for market entry.
The gut microbiome has a two-way biochemical communication line to the brain. This unique relationship is called the “gut-brain axis.” This line of communication enables the body to know when an individual is hungry. It also carries signals that trigger mechanisms in the gut and vice versa, like nerves and stress.
Certain bacteria take advantage of this two-way dialogue between the brain and the gut microbiome. For example, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium use signals from the brain to release short-chain fatty acids regulating immune function. Other strains of good bacteria can release neurochemicals such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which influence fear, stress, and anxiety. Cultivating a diverse population of bacteria in the gut ensures that the gut-brain axis is fully supported.
Consumer awareness of the gut-brain axis is understandably lacking. Generally, the public associates the link between the gut and brain for reasons such as nausea or anxiety, nervous butterflies in the stomach, or feeling hungry. However, the mechanisms at play are not well known. Prebiotics, such as galactooligosaccharides (GOS), offer brands a fresh avenue of exploration in products that seek to support mental health and wellbeing.
The rise of new product categories such as nootropic supplements demonstrates the climbing consumer appetite for products that support cognitive health—and this is just one of prebiotics’ areas of effect. Credible scientific backing plays a large role in shaping that value proposition, which makes a scientifically supported prebiotic a particularly value-added choice for formulators.
Prebiotics Put the Consumer at the Heart
With gut health becoming more widely known by the global health audience, there are many different options opening up in formulation and reformulation.
When we look to prebiotic and probiotic ingredients, it can be difficult to make direct comparisons because both provide value to the consumer and have a definite place in the market. Both prebiotics and probiotics have a great deal of sales potential for brands and their formulators. So instead, we look to prebiotics as the more versatile and flexible of the two.
Prebiotics and probiotics both have their advantages; however, it doesn’t need to be an either/or choice. The growing category of synbiotics may represent the optimal blend of these two technologies.
Synbiotic products combine prebiotic and probiotic active ingredients in one product. The idea is to cast a wider gut health net and increase the potential for positive change in the gut environment.
From our perspective, GOS prebiotics offer the flexibility and versatility that gives them a unique edge over probiotics in many different applications, at the same time unlocking the possibility to create strong propositions for synbiotic combinations in tandem with probiotics.
Those focusing study on the potential of prebiotic ingredients are offering brands around the world—and their consumers—a way to make everyday gut health simpler and more effective.
About the Author
Per Rehné is CEO at Clasado Biosciences (Berkshire, UK).