A good gut feeling: why digestive health is the next wellness frontier

We’re often told to trust our gut. But, for 59% of the global population who experience digestive health issues once a week, this maxim will ring hollow, writes Vicky Davies, Global Marketing Director, Performance and Active Nutrition, FrieslandCampina Ingredients

However, digestive health is now hitting the mainstream public health consciousness. A combination of improved scientific understanding and the once taboo topic now being open for discussion are the first steps to alleviating gastrointestinal problems for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Good gut health extends beyond an upset stomach and taking proactive steps to improving digestive health isn’t just for people who specifically experience gut issues; 66% of people around the world are interested in digestive health products, even if they don’t suffer with specific complaints.1

Combining this curiosity with reports of digestive issues being on the rise, a trend towards whole body and mind wellness, and the increased research into the gut-brain axis, there is a significant — and growing — market that food, drinks and supplement manufacturers can tap into.

The consumer voice

Understanding what consumers are thinking and feeling when it comes to their gut health is important. More people suffer from regular digestive discomfort than don’t.1

But, despite being such a widespread health complaint, it is only relatively recently that these problems have become more widely discussed and understood. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for example, was historically used as a “catch all” term for digestive problems that were difficult to diagnose.

It is widely accepted that factors such as medicine, diet, lifestyle, stress and even gender can increase the likelihood of experiencing “tummy troubles.”

Given the many potential triggers, the fact that more than 40% of global consumers say digestive complaints have had some influence on their lives is unsurprising. Looking at specific symptoms, people say gas (42%), constipation (38%) and bloating (43%) have been influential or very influential in their lives (Figure 1).

This regular disruption in people’s routines will push many to take proactive measures … and we are already seeing this take effect.

Figure 1: During the same digestive health survey, participants were asked how often they suffer from specific health complaints

Outside of diagnosed ailments such as IBS and Crohn’s disease, the conditions that people are most frequently tackling are diarrhoea (63%), bloating (58%), constipation (51%), stomach aches (51%) and gas (47%).1

Food and beverages play an important role in this proactive consumer behaviour. Research by FMCG Gurus suggests that more people are now seeking food and drink solutions positioned around digestive health and may be more willing to pay a premium for the right ones.

What motivates shoppers?

With more consumers tackling problems, clear preferences have emerged. The top priority is a more natural approach as opposed to pharmaceuticals, followed by products that are easy to incorporate into their existing daily routines.

People are actively trying to improve their diets … and digestive health claims in particular have drastically increased in popularity. For example, from 2018 to 2020, interest in products with a digestive health claim increased from 50% to 65% of consumers.

Irrespective of whether people are suffering from specific complaints or not, this heightened interest holds true and is echoed around the world.

Ultimately, people want great tasting food and drink that is good for them. But, consumer perception of what is healthy has changed. Healthy choices have historically been presented as a reduction in things that are considered to be “bad,” such as sugar, fat and artificial additives for instance.

Now, however, consumers are increasingly looking for additions that give them a supplementary health benefit.

Additionally, even when personal health is the priority, minimal environmental impact is also a growing behavioural driver.

From friendly farming practices and natural flavours to local sourcing and recycled (or recyclable) packaging, assurance that their diets are more sustainable is a necessity for more consumers now than ever before, and cannot be forgotten when designing foods for better digestive health.

Opportunities for innovation

For food and beverage manufacturers and brands, the gut health market lends itself to new ingredient combinations and creating targeted products that provide additional value.

For example, research suggests that as many as 30–50% of athletes suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) problems, which may impair their performance or recovery.2 This is when product innovation excels.

Athletes may already be taking supplements and could be on a specific diet with little room to add enriched foods. However, a hydrating, high protein beverage that also supports digestive health could easily fit into their lifestyle.

As consumers are increasingly looking for more holistic ways to improve their health, demand for gut health solutions that provide something “extra” will continue to expand.

Personalisation is a key trend driving all areas of health and nutrition, and digestive health is no exception. Looking ahead, gut health solutions that are tailored to people’s lifestyles and specific health issues will be an area of growth, as will single products that target multiple health concerns.

Women constitute another substantial part of the market. Women suffer from digestive health issues more commonly than men.3 They also account for an increasingly large proportion of the active nutrition market, but relatively few products are tailored to them or their goals.

Therefore, there’s an opportunity to create nutritious products that promote good digestive health and also support an active lifestyle that are targeted at women. The key to unlocking these kinds of personalisation opportunities is combining in-depth market insights with cutting-edge technical expertise.

The science behind the trend

The gut microbiome is the dominant influencer of digestive health. Home to thousands of microbial species, it can be modulated and manipulated through diet. Eubiosis — a healthy gut balance — is achieved by controlling the growth of pathogenic organisms and enhancing the numbers of healthy ones, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, the so-called “good bacteria.” These can be found in probiotic food sources and/or augmented through the consumption of prebiotics.4

Around a decade ago, dietary probiotics dominated the gut health discussion. Although they are still popular with consumers, prebiotics are now changing the game. Unlike probiotics, which are live organisms, prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates.

They are substrates that are selectively utilised by host micro-organisms and confer a health benefit.5 In other words, they are food for “good” microbes. Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), prebiotics that are derived from the lactose in cow’s milk, have been the subject of extensive research for many years (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Molecular structure of FrieslandCampina Ingredients’ Biotis GOS

Scientific studies show that GOS provide a superior prebiotic effect and improve GI health.6 In addition, clinical research reveals that they significantly increase levels of Bifidobacteria in the gut of healthy adults with regular consumption.7

This positively influences a range of conditions, including constipation, bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain and urgency, all of which are common complaints for consumers. GOS also alleviate GI symptoms associated with IBS patients, whereas inulin-type fructans aggravate them.5

Scientific innovations to support gut health are now happening at pace. Synbiotics is another interesting area of microbiome research that is now informing product formulations. These are a mixture of live micro-organisms and substrates selectively utilised by microbes, essentially a combination of prebiotics and probiotics.7

Digestive health: the future of wellness

Much like mental well-being, gut health is shaking off its stigma and consumers want products that feel specific to them and their lifestyles. Prebiotics will be key to unlocking innovative functional food and beverage solutions for better gut health.

However, not all GOS are equal, so selecting the right partner to explore and expand in this exciting market is essential. FrieslandCampina Ingredients is unmatched when it comes to the volume of research into GOS prebiotics, such as Biotis GOS, and scientists continue to uncover their wider potential health benefits, including overall digestive, immunity and brain health.

References

  1. FMCG Gurus, Digestive Health Surveys (2018–2020): see fmcggurus.com/blog/fmcg-gurus-the-evolution-of-digestive-health-in-2020.
  2. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-014-0153-2.
  3. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150330134409.htm.
  4. G.R. Gibson, R.W. Hutkins and S.L. Prescott, "Expert Consensus Document: The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) Consensus Statement on the Definition and Scope of Prebiotics," Nat. Rev. Gastroenterol. Hepatol. 14, 491–502 (2017).
  5. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nmo.13440.
  6. https://sfamjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jam.12105.
  7. www.nature.com/articles/s41575-020-0344-2.

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