How brands are capitalising on gut health

By Donna Eastlake

- Last updated on GMT

How brands are capitalising on gut health. GettyImages/PeopleImages
How brands are capitalising on gut health. GettyImages/PeopleImages

Related tags Gut health microbiome Prebiotic Probiotic Postbiotic Nutrition Health claims

Gut health is proving to be hugely popular with consumers and enormously profitable for food and beverage manufacturers. In financial terms, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

The gut health trend is here to stay​. And unlike other trends (plant-based​ I’m looking at you) it shows no signs of slowing.

So why is the gut health trend so successful and how have manufacturers turned it into the gold mine it’s become?

Why has the gut health trend become so popular?

By now, many are acquainted with terms like microbiome and probiotics (we’ve included a factbox below, if you’re unfamiliar). In fact, for some consumers, these terms have entered into common parlance in a way few would have predicted just a decade ago.

According to the International Probiotics Association (IPA) 63% of European consumers surveyed knew what probiotics and probiotic foods were.

“We live in a time where a simple Google search for ‘probiotics products’ shows over 94 million hits,” says a spokesperson for the IPA. “The probiotics market continuously expands with the globalisation of online sales, and probiotics are increasingly popular and widely advertised on the Internet.”

And this is not limited to Europe alone. Figures from market research firm, Mintel, show that nearly three in five US adults say they try to eat foods that encourage a healthy gut.

Furthermore, market research firm, Marketresearch.biz, estimates that the global digestive health products market will reach a value of approximately 94.4 billion USD within the next decade (2032).

Kombucha - GettyImages-NatalyaStepowaya
Kombucha can be made at home, but multiple brands are also launching their own versions. GettyImages/NatalyaStepowaya

So why has gut health become so popular?

Many consumers first became aware of the concept of gut-friendly food and beverage products with the launch of probiotic milk drinks such as Yakult, Actimel and Muller Vitality back in the 1990s.

“Consumer understanding of gut health has grown significantly in recent years, and we attribute this to various factors," Reshma Patel, marketing manager at Yakult UK, told FoodNavigator. "While probiotics have been recognised globally for some time, it’s only relatively recently that scientific advancements have highlighted the profound impact of gut health on overall wellbeing. It extends way beyond digestion, with growing evidence revealing the interconnection of the body's major organs, with the gut at the centre of this intricate system. Another driving force has been a cultural shift towards preventive health measures rather than just focusing on cure. People are being increasingly proactive in maintaining their health, rather than waiting for diseases or illnesses to strike."

Since then, consumer interest and understanding has grown exponentially. One of the potential reasons for this is the increase in gastrointestinal issues.

“Current data suggest that the incidence and prevalence of these GI disorders, which includes the most common functional disorders, are generally increasing, with the highest rates reported in eastern European countries and in less affluent parts of western Europe,” explains a spokesperson for United European Gastroenterology (UEG).

Moreover, figures from UEG show that gastrointestinal and liver disorders are responsible for around one million deaths across Europe each year and are associated with substantial morbidity and healthcare costs.

Kefir - GettyImages-minoandriani
Fermented drinks, such as kefir, have become popular with gut health enthusiasts. GettyImages/minoandriani

How have manufacturers monetised gut health?

It’s no surprise that where consumers lead, food and beverage manufacturers follow, and when it comes to gut health, follow they have… in a big way.

From gut-friendly drinks to gut-friendly flapjacks, the food and beverage industry is awash with gut-friendly products. But along with the perhaps less legitimate gut health marketing claims (mentioning no names!), comes some true innovation.

Firms across the world are developing new products to support the gut health of people of all ages. Dutch ingredients start-up, NutriLeads​, is exploring the gut health potential of carrots, while British start-up, Little Inca​, is developing products to support the gut microbiota of infants, with quinoa-based baby foods.

“Over the last ten years the patents and filings related to food and drink with probiotics added to them has just soared,” Mintel's Miller said during a recent Fi Webinar Series. “We’ve seen an exponential growth of probiotic infused products.”

Sourdough - GettyImages-alvarez
Sourdough bread has become a firm favourite amongst bread fans and it comes with the added benefit of being gut friendly. GettyImages/alvarez

What’s next for the gut health trend?

The gut health trend is on the up and up​, with consumer interest, understanding, and demand for gut-friendly products, continuing to grow.

“Gut health really is an important area within food and drink, particularly functional food and drink," says Rick Miller, associate director for specialised nutrition at market research firm Mintel. "It’s moving away from the common areas that we would have associated with gut health in food and drink, which is functional and clinical management and moving into the everyday gut health support, so for conditions like functional bloating and irritable bowel syndrome.”

Guide to gut health terms

What is the gut microbiome?

Each of us has trillions of microbes or bacteria living in our gut. These are collectively referred to as the gut microbiome. The two most common species of helpful bacteria found in our gut microbiome are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Maintaining a healthy balance between the helpful (good) bacteria and the unhelpful (bad) bacteria is fundamental in supporting a healthy digestive system, with the gut now understood to be central to health, containing more than 70% of our immune system.

The gut microbiome has been linked not just to gut health, but with the health of the entire body. The gut-brain axis or the communication between the gut and the brain is one fundamental function currently being researched by scientists and also gaining widespread recognition amongst consumers. The gut-skin axis and the gut-liver axis are two other connections which are beginning to be studied and understood. Furthermore, gut health has also been linked to the prevention of colorectal cancer and other chronic diseases.

What are prebiotics in food?

Prebiotics in food are compounds which support the beneficial microorganisms or good bacteria in the gut (gastrointestinal tract).

Dietary prebiotics are typically non-digestible fibre compounds that pass undigested through the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract, supporting the growth of the ‘good’ bacteria in the colon. They can be found in a multitude of foods, including almonds, bananas, wholegrain wheat, corn, rye and barley, and flaxseeds

What are probiotics in food?

Probiotics in foods are live microorganisms often described as helpful or ‘good’ bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy. Probiotics are available in foods such as live yogurt.

What are postbiotics in food?

Postbiotics​, also known as metabiotics, biogenics, or metabolites, are a waste product, produced when the body digests prebiotics and probiotics.

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