The term prebiotic has become an industry buzzword. How it translates to finished products and consumers may be another story, however.
Dietary fiber is an important category of ingredients because of the versatility it offers product formulators and the benefits fiber confers to consumers, whether in standalone dietary supplements or in functional foods and beverages. While fiber is not new to the marketplace, it was only recently that FDA established a legal definition for dietary fiber that allows a limited number of ingredients to carry this claim.
When FDA issued its 2016 Nutrition Facts Label final rule, it defined dietary fiberas “non-digestible soluble and insoluble carbohydrates (with 3 or more monomeric units), and lignin that are intrinsic and intact in plants; isolated or synthetic non-digestible carbohydrates (with 3 or more monomeric units) determined by FDA to have physiological effects that are beneficial to human health.”1
Among the ingredients that now meet the legal definition of dietary fiber are beta-glucan soluble fiber, psyllium husk, cellulose, guar gum, pectin, locust bean gum, hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, mixed plant cell wall fibers (a broad category that includes fibers like sugar cane fiber and apple fiber, among many others), arabinoxylan, alginate, inulin and inulin-type fructans, high-amylose starch/resistant starch 2, galactooligosaccharide, polydextrose, and resistant maltodextrin/dextrin.2
Well-established dietary fibers such as psyllium husk continue to perform well in the marketplace. According to market researcher SPINS (Chicago), during the 52 weeks ending October 6, 2019, psyllium husk sales grew in a number of retail channels. It ranked among the top-25-selling functional ingredients in both the specialty gourmet and mainstream multioutlet channels, grossing $1.3 million and $192 million, respectively, each at a growth rate of 6%. In the natural sales channel, psyllium is a top-selling digestive health ingredient, with $3.8 million in sales in that category, an increase of 9.3% over the previous year.
Taking a look at the specific health categories in which psyllium saw growth, in the specialty gourmet channel, psyllium performed well in both the digestive health category and the cardiovascular health category, growing in sales by 15.9% and 3%, respectively. In the mainstream multioutlet channel, sales of psyllium in the cardiovascular category showed a modest increase of 0.5% to $142.5 million, while sales grew in the mainstream digestive health category by 39.7% to $35.8 million. Significantly, in both the mainstream and specialty gourmet channels’ cardiovascular health category, psyllium sales were second only to fish oil.
SPINS also tracked sales of “fiber,” though the specific fiber sources are unspecified. In the 52 weeks ending October 6, 2019, fiber sales in the natural channel’s digestive health category hit $1.5 million, while in the mainstream digestive health category, fiber sales hit $123.6 million. This constitutes a sales increase of 5.2% and a decrease of 3.6%, respectively. And while mainstream fiber sales fell, it’s notable that fiber in the mainstream digestive health category is still the second bestselling ingredient behind probiotics, which also experienced a modest decline.
Dietary fibers are diverse, and their versatility is the key to their continued success. Certain fibers can support not only digestive health and cardiovascular health, but also immune health and weight management, for instance. Currently, a rising star in the world of dietary fiber is inulin, often derived from chicory root, which serves a number of important functions for product formulators. For example, inulin fiber, with its intrinsically sweet flavor, can be used to reduce sugar in products, while also providing the ideal texture to products.
While fiber claims are not new, versatile fibers like inulin that serve multiple functions will drive the category forward. “For consumers, [fiber content is] a reassuring wellness message, but for most it’s not a compelling reason to purchase,” says Julian Mellentin, director of New Nutrition Business. “However, if you can combine ‘more fiber’ with the much-more-interesting-to-consumers message of ‘less sugar,’ then you are making a better consumer connection, and this is where inulin wins.”
An extension of dietary fibers is prebiotics. Many dietary fibers, such as psyllium husk, galactooligosaccharides, and inulin, have prebiotic activity. Prebiotics are bit of a complicated topic. While consumers are slowly becoming more aware of the term prebiotic, from a regulatory standpoint the term prebiotic itself is still somewhat complicated because prebiotic does not have a legal definition.
While prebiotic has no legal definition from a regulatory body such as FDA, scientific literature defines a prebiotic as “a selectively fermented ingredient that allows specific changes, both in the composition and/or activity in the gastrointestinal microflora, that confer benefits.”3
The influence of the gastrointestinal microflora on our health continues to compel researchers and product manufacturers to develop innovative products. Prior to prebiotics, probiotics dominated the conversation about gut microflora, but emerging research is pointing to the importance of incorporating prebiotics as well. Consequently, the term prebiotic has become a bit of an industry buzzword. How it translates to finished products and consumers may be another story, however.
Despite some manufacturers actively marketing their ingredients with the term prebiotic, consumer recognition may still take time. “The term prebiotic has long been a problem because of its similarity to probiotic,” says Mellentin. “Hence, consumer understanding of prebiotics is low-perhaps [recognized by] just 10%-12% of Americans. That has grown slowly over the last 10 years, and the prebiotic supplements and small-but-growing social media attention will raise awareness, but the term will remain confined to the most health-aware consumers, who are at best 20%-25% of the U.S. population.”
There is no doubt that prebiotic fibers are playing a large role in product formulation today, both in functional food as well as dietary supplements, but a concerted effort may be required by industry to educate mainstream consumers about prebiotics. Continued research and innovation will only bolster the category’s relevance.
2020 Ingredient Trends to Watch for Food, Drinks, and Dietary Supplements: