What Will It Take to Expand Probiotics’ Customer Base?

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 20 No. 7
Volume 20
Issue 7

“The key to continued probiotic growth is to expand the user base-have it go more mainstream,” says Dupont’s Megan DeStefano. “To do this, we need to attract new consumers through new and different benefits beyond immune and digestive health.”

Photo © iStockphoto.com/exdez

The story of probiotics has thus far been one of continual evolution: evolution in the research; evolution in consumer demand; evolution in the bacteria themselves. But one constant through all the flux has been that the story of these “good gut bugs” is largely a good news story, as well.

Why? Aside from the fact that there’s a lot to like about probiotics, “the reasons are varied,” says Missy Lowery, MS, senior manager, marketing, Capsugel (Morristown, NJ). “Consumers and healthcare providers are becoming more aware of probiotics’ numerous benefits beyond digestive health. Various delivery forms that are more convenient and effective are arriving on the scene. Scientific evidence to support claims and the development of specialty strains to improve targeted action also add to their popularity.”

But all this good news will remain an inside story unless we get the word out. Which is why marketing is “the key component in the retail growth of probiotic supplements,” Lowery says. And by “marketing,” we’re not just talking product promotion. “Understanding what consumers want and who influences their purchases will be critical for probiotic manufacturers, brands, and retailers,” she says. Armed with that information, we’ll have the tools to give this story a happy ending.


Almost Mainstream?

It’s hard to imagine a time when probiotics weren’t on the tips of everyone’s tongues-figuratively, if not literally. The press attention they’ve enjoyed alone would be enough make coenzyme Q10 or vitamin K2 swoon. Notes Amy Sunderman, director of science & innovation, Swanson Health Products (Fargo, ND), mainstream media outlets including The New Yorker, Huffington Post, USA Today, “The Today Show,” and even “Saturday Night Live” now regularly pick up and riff on stories that originated in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

But just because SNL spoofs you in a mock commercial doesn’t mean you’re a household supplement quite yet. Asked if she thinks probiotics have gone mainstream, Megan DeStefano, global probiotics marketing leader, DuPont Nutrition & Health (Madison, WI), says, “Well, that depends on what you consider mainstream.” Given that probiotic penetration in U.S. households is less than one quarter the roughly 68% rate we see for traditional multivitamins, she says, we have a ways to go.

“However,” she concedes, “we are seeing a large upswing in consumer awareness and use.” A recent Gallup study says that consumers’ levels of aided awareness and “effort to consume” are closing in on those for omega-3s and green tea, DeStefano notes. In fact, Matthew Oster, head of consumer health research for Euromonitor International, pointed out at the International Probiotics Association conference in San Francisco this past June that probiotics now lead dietary supplement growth, having surpassed ginseng, glucosamine, protein, fish oil, and omega-3s, and even calcium.


Growing Communities

Quantifying the growing awareness, a 2017 Survey Sampling International (SSI) questionnaire found fully 76% of healthy respondents have probiotics on their radars. As more consumers tune in, “This increased awareness will be a big factor in the overall probiotic market’s growth,” says David Keller, vice president of scientific operations, Ganeden (Mayfield Heights, OH).

He notes recent reporting from Global Market Insights predicting that the global probiotic industry will be worth $64.6 billion by 2023, while probiotic ingredient sales were already at $36.6 billion in 2015. And in North America alone, adds Euromonitor’s Oster, the retail value of probiotic supplements should hit $3.3 billion by 2021, with growth from 2016 to 2021 forecast at 55%.

But if you’re looking to profile the typical consumer responsible for these impressive numbers, one profile simply won’t do. “There isn’t one main probiotics consumer,” Keller says. “We’ve seen interest across all demographics,” including all age ranges, genders, and backgrounds.

Lowery cites results of the National Marketing Institute’s Supplement OTC Rx Database (SORD) 2015 study showing that Gen Xers, aged 39 to 50, and Boomers, aged 51 to 69, are most interested in integrating probiotics into their diets. But Millennials, aged 17 to 38, comprise “one group that would be ripe for an introduction to probiotics’ benefits,” she says. After all, they’re already right behind Boomers in their use of vitamins, minerals, and supplements, at 34% and 43%, respectively, per the SORD study.

But it’s only by understanding what these consumers want that brands can best position themselves to grow their ranks. As Sunderman says, “Supplement consumers in general are looking for products that meet their health needs and are ‘personalized’ to them in some way.” The same is true for probiotic consumers in particular. “Messaging that speaks to specific groups and lets them know that a product was formulated to support the health benefit they’re seeking with their needs in mind resonates most strongly.”


Broaden the Benefits

DeStefano agrees. “The key to continued probiotic growth is to expand the user base-have it go more mainstream,” she says. “To do this, we need to attract new consumers through new and different benefits beyond immune and digestive health.”

Digestion and immunity long dominated the reasons consumers explore probiotics. Lowery sites a 2016 Innova Market Insights study showing that 78.5% of new probiotic supplement launches in 2015 made digestive-health claims, with immune health right behind at 36.9%. But as research elucidates a role for probiotics beyond these two fields, brands have begun pitching products as addressing other health positions-including, as the Innova study found, energy and stamina (noted in 10.3% of 2015’s launches), children’s wellbeing (6.9%), general health and wellness (6.6%), weight management (5.7%), bone health (5.1%), heart health (4.8%), women’s health (4.8%), and brain/mood health (4.3%).

“Now that consumers are becoming more aware of the category, they’re seeking probiotic supplementation in a number of new areas,” says Kathy Paffendorf, sales account executive, Pharmachem Laboratories Inc. (Kearny, NJ). And brands are responding. “For example,” Paffendorf says, “Probiotica S.p.A. of Novara, Italy, has clinically studied a probiotic strain found specifically in centenarians. And several other companies in the industry now offer probiotics that target weight loss and control.” Keller adds that athletes are intrigued by probiotics like his company’s Ganeden BC30, which research has recently shown enhances protein utilization.

Getting deeper into the weeds, Christopher Elkins, director of the division of molecular biology at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), is undertaking a metagenomics analysis of the gut microbiome, as well as a genomic-scale analysis of probiotics and enteric foodborne pathogens, Paffendorf says. “There’s so much science yet to be revealed, and I believe that over the next decade, we’ll make extensive strides in applying the findings to the development of effective new products.”


Knowledge Is Power

The public already seems to be getting the message. “Our data illustrates that consumers are starting to associate other types of health benefits with probiotics,” DeStefano says. And the same research shows that consumers are open to applying probiotics more broadly-as long as they’re “educated on how and why probiotics help in these new areas before they believe and purchase,” she says.

Across the board, experts emphasize that such education is pivotal to growing the probiotic user community. And already, the public is wising up. “Consumers are reasonably informed about what probiotics can do for them,” Lowery says. Referencing the SORD study once again, she notes that 23% of the consumers involved knew enough to be concerned about the number of bacteria present in a product, and another 23% showed interest in the bacterial strain. The same study, however, revealed confusion regarding strain count, Lowery adds, with “a whopping 44%” of consumers simply not knowing which strain count was best.

Strain specificity and proper dosing are two areas that Paffendorf also thinks need attention. “‘Billions and billions,’” she says, “doesn’t always mean better. The consumer sees ‘mgs,’ ‘CFU,’ ‘cells,’ and more-and they really need to know how dosing differs and if what’s being delivered will provide a benefit.” She’s optimistic that the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s (CRN; Washington, DC) push to state dosing in CFU/g on labels will help clear things up, but maintains that industry has “a long road ahead in educating consumers and growing their knowledge of probiotics.”


Evolving Formats

One way to grow it might be to offer consumers a wider variety of probiotic-fortified products; as DeStefano says, “Many consumers first get their probiotics education from yogurt and then expand into supplements as they learn more.”

Euromonitor International data ranked global sales of probiotic foods like yogurt and sour milks above those of probiotic supplements in 2015, at $41 billion and $3.8 billion, respectively, Lowery says. However, the trend is narrowing that consumption gap, with growth of 37% expected in probiotic supplements by 2020, she says. She also calls North America “the world’s most progressive market” for probiotics, with 15% of supplement users in the United States alone taking probiotics, up from 1% in 2005, per the SORD study.

Easier-to-use and more efficacious supplements will goose that growth, Lowery says, with capsules popular for their versatility, minimal packaging, convenience, and ease of consumption. Her company’s Coni-Snap Sprinkle Capsule “appeals to a consumer segment that experiences difficulties swallowing,” she notes; and when company scientists learned that stomach acids can destroy probiotic bacteria before they even reach the intestines, they developed DRcaps capsules with an acid-resistant polymer that delays opening. An independent in vivo gamma scintigraphy study showed that, on average, the capsules begin to release at a mean time of 52 minutes following ingestion, “when they’re passing from the stomach into the small intestine, where probiotics work best,” Lowery says.

But, says Keller, “The easiest and most convenient delivery method for any functional ingredient is through products that are already part of consumers’ daily routines.” With some consumers suffering “pill fatigue” and others choosing to avoid items like yogurt and fermented milk, “it can be difficult to consume probiotics through traditional supplements or refrigerated dairy.” Fortunately, he says, “new probiotic products are launching daily in a variety of categories.”

Indeed, says Sunderman, “While probiotic products originated as fermented foods, yogurts, and supplements, these ingredients have extended their reach into coffee, orange juice, candy, makeup, beauty cream, and even water.” And DeStefano believes the colonization can go even further. “From a food and beverage perspective, especially beyond dairy, I think we’re at a tipping point and have been for some time,” she says. “There’s a definite chance that probiotics could go mainstream in the food and beverage space, but we’re not there yet.”


Engaging Conversations

Getting there will require “strong science to drive new health benefits,” she continues, “which will bring new consumers into the market. And to bring new consumers into the market, more education for influencers-like the medical community-will be key.”

Lowery also believes that healthcare professionals “must become more aware of probiotics’ benefits in all therapeutic areas.” Internal research from 2015 with gastroenterologists showed that though 85% discussed probiotics with patients, “in many cases they didn’t have specific recommendations on brand, strength, or frequency of use,” Lowery says. Industry could clearly make gains by providing “appropriate guidance,” she says, to practitioner groups-including pharmacists.

It’s also important to communicate convincingly with consumers, and social media has been a boon in helping brands, and the probiotic community more generally, do so. “We use social and other media to reach and engage with our eager and enthusiastic community, as well as to educate and inspire new customers by providing the latest scientific research on the microbiome and how it’s reshaping everything we know about staying well,” says Jamie Morea, founder and chief strategy officer, Hyperbiotics (Henderson, NV). “The truth is that word of mouth is a powerful force, and by leveraging others’ ability to share trustworthy information with loved ones and friends and to create intentional communities around health, we’ve harnessed social media’s power to reach our ‘people.’”

And if there’s anything a probiotic brand would be wise to do, it’s earning the people’s trust. “This is a category where people don’t get instant relief,” DeStefano points out. “Consumers have to keep taking probiotics for at least a couple weeks before they really feel the benefits. So if the benefits aren’t backed with science, we risk disappointing consumers and losing them. This is a fast-paced market, so for success, we need strong and fast science that translates well into consumer benefits on the shelf.”


Also read:

Probiotic Product Trends: From Yogurt to Kefir

Probiotics: Research Beyond the Belly...and to the Brain and Heart

2017 Ingredient Trends to Watch for Food, Drinks, and Dietary Supplements: Probiotics


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