Why the Future of Wellness Lies in the Gut

Digestive health has fast become one of the biggest focus areas of health and wellbeing this year. Now, the “single-largest area of the food and health markets in Europe, Japan and South America,” according to Julian Mellentin of New Nutrition Business. Euromonitor reports that sales of digestive remedies are expected to reach £307 million in the UK by the end of 2016 and £333 million by 2021.

With an increase in digestive complaints driving the market (the National Institutes of Health claims that 60-70 million people suffer from digestive diseases in the US alone), stemming from a combination of unhealthy lifestyle choices, an aging population and an increase in the number of people claiming to have intolerances. A greater understanding of the role of digestive health in overall wellbeing is also shaping the industry.

Within the digestive health market, probiotics and prebiotics are experiencing explosive growth in popularity, notably in the form of yogurts. Activia, which explicitly markets its products as beneficial to digestive health, has seen sales growth of  65% between 2006 and 2009, while other well-supported digestive health brands, like Alpro, saw growth of over 20% during the recession.

“Optimal health throughout the whole body must begin in the gut,” explains Natalie Lamb, Nutritional Therapist at Bio-Kult. Providing multi-strain, live bacteria food supplements, the international company argues that the surge in the probiotic market is being driven by an increase in studies highlighting the benefits of probiotics, individuals seeking a ‘preventative healthcare lifestyle’ and increased acceptance of probiotics as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Kara Rosen, founder of Plenish, a UK based healthy drinks brand, which sell cold-pressed juice and Water+, a probiotic water-based drink created to support digestive health, echoes this sentiment: “Gut health isn’t a quick fix; it is a proactive way to manage your health,” she explains.

Plenish Probiotic water
Image: Plenish

More recently, the market has also witnessed strong consumer demand for non-dairy probiotics, evidenced by the increasing popularity of fermented foods and beverages, including kimchi, miso, kefir, sauerkraut and even kombucha cocktails.

Brian Owen of Rhythm Health, a company specialising in raw, probiotic coconut products, believes this is being driven by consumers becoming less reliant on animal products – making probiotics available in “market savvy free-from products opens up new categories,” he argues.

But, in order to benefit, brands must consider less traditional vehicles of probiotics, such as nut butters or chocolate, if they want to attract a mainstream audience. In particular, products that are multi-functional, such as probiotic protein shakes, are likely to prove popular.

In addition to probiotics, fibre rich, plant-based products have also risen in popularity, thanks to their digestive health benefits. As well as naturally gluten-free grains, such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet and quinoa, the trend towards returning to ancient grains and the foods of our ancestors is tapping into “a whole new old world,” says Nick Barnard, founder of Rude Health.

Although supplements are popular, the most significant growth will be found in the form of fortified foods and beverages of the sort that consumers already enjoy. Companies like Rhythm Health that use naturally functional, organic, and ‘clean’ products are on course to see the most success.

However, the market for digestive health products, and particularly probiotics, certainly faces unique challenges.

Where the gut is concerned, there is no ‘one size fits all’. A hugely complex organ which is only beginning to be understood, one of the biggest challenges lies in the fact that two-thirds of gut bacteria is specific to the individual – this necessitates a highly personalised approach.

gut health market
Image: Rude Health

Although suspected, it is yet to be scientifically proven that ingredients designed to alter gut bacteria can control or reduce diet-related illnesses. It is important, therefore, that new products are backed by sound scientific evidence.

Delivering the right dose of probiotics intact, into the body, is also difficult to achieve; it is not enough to consume probiotics if they are not available for the body to use. As such, enzyme supplements such as Udo’s Choice are gaining consumer recognition due to their ability to help the gut break down food to extract nutrients. Catherine Adams Hutt, chief science and regulatory officer of Sloan Trends, which tracks food, beverage and supplement industry trends,predicts that digestive enzymes will be the fastest-growing supplements in 2016.

Arguably, the biggest obstacle facing probiotics is the restriction around EFSA health claims, felt particularly keenly by companies like Yakult. The term ‘probiotic’ is not permitted on packaging in the EU and legislation differences across markets (Asia, the US and the EU) can make it difficult to expand. As a result, brands need to be more inventive in relaying the benefits of gut-friendly ingredients in their products, for example by referring to live bacteria.

The key, according to Rosen, lies in educating consumers about the benefits of probiotics and for the medical and nutrition community to be more vocal. Barry Smith, Chairman of Symprove, adds that word of mouth and ‘building strong communities’ around digestive health are the keys to success.

The digestive health market certainly has the potential to achieve ground-breaking developments. And, as more companies invest in understanding the connection between the gut and individuals’ physiology,  the development of dietary interventions preventing diet-related and behavioural disorders will become more frequent.

As our understanding of the gut intensifies and consumers become increasingly health-conscious, so the breadth of products is likely to increase, expanding into functional foods, beverages and supplements that combine probiotics and prebiotics targeting areas beyond digestive health.

Chronic disease is also on course to become a key focus; studies into the relationship between the microbiome and the brain and chronic disease are already driving companies to invest more heavily in DNA analysis and genetic profiling.

Nutraceuticals World reported that in January, Nestlé Health Science invested in Seres Health Inc., a microbiome therapeutics company that is developing drugs ‘designed to treat diseases by restoring the function of the microbiome’. This is likely to lead to an increase in digestive products, particularly supplements, that target obesity, stress, cardiac health and depression.

In connection to these developments, the market will start to increase its focus on personalised nutrition, based on the awareness that each individual has their own genetic profile and responds to ingredients in different ways. This may prompt more companies to offer personalised diet plans and supplements based on microbe and DNA analysis.

In the shorter term, the free-from market continues to hold huge potential, as consumers with different health concerns and lifestyles seek products that satisfy their individual requirements. Gluten-free products show no sign of waning and the potential for innovation in the gut-friendly dairy free market is significant. Barnard predicts significant growth in traditional foods that are sprouted, activated or fermented.

“The health food industry is in a constant state of development as people turn away from processed, unhealthy foods,” says Gary Leigh of Go! Kombucha, a UK-based unpasteurised kombucha tea brand.

It is therefore up to brands to provide innovative gut-friendly products that deliver on taste and tend towards naturally functional ingredients and that are “one step ahead of ever-changing consumer trends.”

Consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for products they perceive to be healthy, the challenge for brands is to keep innovating and improving to keep up with their demands.

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