Meeting Consumers’ Digestive Health Needs

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Consumers today are interested in maintaining all aspects of their health, be it cognitive or heart health, weight management, or even digestive health. Manufacturers can leverage on this interest with prebiotics and probiotics. By Michelle Cheong

With the ongoing health and wellness trend being propelled by the increasing awareness of consumers of the importance of health, manufacturers stand much to gain by the opportunities presented in gaps for various food and beverage categories. However, as more and more food businesses jump onto the health and wellness bandwagon, markets are becoming increasingly competitive.

For example, it is no longer sufficient to just be reducing fat, salt or sugar content in existing products; consumers are going beyond this and demanding for more natural and healthy solutions. This has led to new solutions being found to replace these three negatively perceived ingredients, such as natural sweeteners, or the fortification of ingredients such as vitamins and minerals into products so as to make them more functional.

With consumers becoming increasingly concerned with all aspects of health, manufacturers can tap into a category with great growth potential: prebiotics and probiotics. This category is not new, but it is rapidly developing as more consumers gain interest in it.

Pre And Probiotics In Brief

This colour-changing agar depicts the ecosystem of gut bacteria
which helps keep us healthy.

Research originating from over 100 years ago showed the existence of probiotics, which are micro-organisms believed to provide health benefits when consumed, and thereby dubbed ‘useful bacteria’. Probiotics have also been shown to help maintain or improve gastrointestinal health such as targeting harmful bacteria in the gut, strengthening the immune system, and improving bowel regularity.

In contrast, prebiotics are the more recent discovery, having been identified and named by Marcel Roberfroid only in 1995. These refer to substances that induce the growth or activity of micro-organisms such as bacteria or funghi, and hence contribute to the wellbeing of their host.

Prebiotics are typically non-digestible fibre compounds that pass through the gastrointestinal tract undigested, and stimulate growth or activity of the good bacteria by acting as a substrate for them. Through this, they improve the good-to-bad bacteria ratio in the gut, and this ratio has been shown to have a direct correlation to health and overall wellbeing, from stomach to brain.

But the question is, why prebiotics and probiotics?

Gastrointestinal Health In Asia

Generally, consumers today lead very fast-paced lives, even in the developing countries of Asia. With this comes the need for convenience foods to eat on-the-go. As a result, a large proportion of consumers today have poor or less than desired diets due to excessive intake of processed foods, oily foods, or perhaps even indulgent foods due to rising incomes and standards of living.

According to Dr Wang Chin-Kun, an expert in metabolism and nutrition and a current professor and former president of the Chung Shan Medical University in Taiwan, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is very important and it is the first touching area for eating materials, which is set to work after every meal. When something happens to the GI tract, the energy supply and nutrients supplementation could be greatly interrupted and even terminated.

Dietary behaviour, environmental factors, sanitary condition, social stress and genetic genotype can induce digestive disorders and GI diseases, such as colorectal cancer, gastroesophageal reflux disease, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease.

Rapid growth of GI diseases has been observed in Asian populations during the past two decades. Both incidence and prevalence rates have shown a notable rise, and GI diseases are increasingly the cause of morbidity and mortality in the region.

In fact, in the 2012 World Cancer Research Fund’s annual ranking of the top 20 countries with the highest incidence of stomach cancer, three Asian countries were ranked in the top five: Korea placed first with an incidence of 42 per 100,000 people; Japan, third with an incidence of 30 per 100,000; and China, fifth with an incidence of 23 per 100,000. These are significant statistics, and if nothing is done now, it is likely that consumers and manufacturers alike will have to target GI health in a similar way akin to cardiovascular health or weight management in due time.

Exploring Opportunities With Digestive Health

Vera Kratochvil

This is where prebiotics and probiotics come in. Consumers may still be easily confused in what these two are exactly, and how they benefit the body and GI health.

Prebiotics can be typically obtained from natural vegetables, fruits and cereals. They are commonly found in foods such as Acacia gum, whole wheat flour, or raw vegetables such as garlic, leek, onion or asparagus.

Probiotics on the other hand, are live bacteria and usually include the lactobacteria and bifido species. They are found in yoghurt and dairy products, and a typical example of probiotics in beverages is Yakult, a Japanese probiotic dairy product made by fermenting a mixture of skimmed milk with a strain of the bacterium Lactobacillus casei.

In lieu of the ongoing health and wellness trend that seems to be taking consumers by a storm, manufacturers can cater to needs of consumers with products bearing a digestive health positioning, such as with prebiotic and probiotic-enhanced foods.

These products could prove to be popular with consumers for their apparent health benefits. Additionally, the fact that these can comprise natural ingredients found in everyday foods and do not have to be taken as dietary supplements that some may be perceived as ‘artificial’ would also be an added plus.

Manufacturers need also take heed of the ongoing consumer trend for convenience with their products. Consumers today want all things easier to take, faster, and cheaper if possible. Sizes and material used in packaging needs to be an important consideration, as would ease of consumption; who would not want a single ‘magic pill’ that contains everything healthy?

In fact, synbiotics could be an easier ingredient for manufacturers to leverage on. These are products with a mixture of prebiotics and probiotics that both implant good live bacteria as well as improve their survival by stimulating the growth or activating their metabolism. As the name suggests, synbiotics are synergic, enhancing the synergy between pre- and probiotic effect in the gastrointestinal tract.

Users therefore gain similar benefits from taking a single product rather than taking two separate ones, and some research even suggests that synbiotics can even have more beneficial effects on human health than taking prebiotics or probiotics alone.

Looking forward, the prevention and treatment of GI diseases, as with all other health related problems, would likely be trends, and manufacturers can capitalise on this opportunity by formulating more prebiotic, probiotic, or even synbiotic-fortified products, so as to improve consumer gut health.