Probiotics. Prebiotics. Natural and added fiber. Gluten. Fermentation. When it comes to gut health, consumers have a lot to ... digest.
Digestive health means various things to different consumers at different times: avoidance of bloating, pain and discomfort; regular, consistent bowel movements; minimal to no gastric reflux, and timely gastric emptying. While digestive health may not be the uppermost nutritional concern for a majority of consumers, food industry observers say it’s becoming increasingly important.
“Digestive health is in a really interesting place right now, because at one point in time it was kind of niche,” says Shelley Balanko, senior vice president with the Hartman Group (www.hartman-group.com). “Only really progressive consumers in the wellness space were actively managing their digestion and seeking products that would improve it.
“Now it’s become a much more mainstream concern,” she continued. “However, what it means and how it’s being addressed really varies along a continuum among health and wellness consumers more generally.”
Balanko says this continuum extends from “accidental tourists” of health and wellness, who don’t really think about their digestion until something goes wrong, to “core consumers,” who take an active role in health management, are always trying to educate themselves and follow trends quickly.
One of the most enduring such trends has been gluten-free products. The market for gluten-free has grown an average of 24 percent a year from 2013 to 2017, according to Innova Market Insights (www.innovadatabase.com). This is somewhat surprising because gluten, a protein that occurs naturally in wheat, rye and barley, is truly problematic only for sufferers of celiac disease—an intestinal disorder that afflicts about 1 percent of the U.S. population.
Balanko, however, says that gluten-free has a wider appeal, “because it’s connected with general digestive discomfort, and for many consumers, gluten-free was a path to weight management.”
In that regard, it was effective for some consumers for the same simple reason that the low-carb diet helped people lose weight: It led them to limit their overall calorie consumption.
“It’s always heartbreaking to tell them that they are losing weight because they are being more conscious of what they are consuming, thus consuming [fewer] overall calories, and that no, it is likely not just being gluten-free,” says Kristi King, a senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital and a clinical instructor at Baylor College of Medicine.
King says she always cautions those who go gluten-free without a medical reason. “Many times, that means people will cut grains completely out of their diets, which reduces their fiber intake as well as many vitamins and minerals,” she says.
Fiber and the gut
Fiber, in grain-based foods and many others, has been associated with digestive health for decades. In 2014, the Whole Grains Council (wholegrainscouncil.org), a nonprofit advocacy group, issued its Whole Grain Stamps —certifying three degrees of whole-grain content — to 9,442 products. At last count, the number is up to 12,439.
“Digestive health is certainly one of the more popular advantages of whole grains, especially because whole grains are so closely linked with fiber in consumers’ minds,” says Kelly Toups, the council’s director of nutrition. According to a survey this year by the International Food Information Council (www.foodinsight.org), more than 80 percent of respondents recognize whole grains as healthy, and survey data from NPD Group (www.npdgroup.com) found that 52 percent of consumers say they’re seeking out more whole grains.
Some nutritionists and consumer advocates are skeptical of the value of fiber that is added to a formulation, for example in the form of inulin, a substance usually derived from chicory root. But others estimate that 5 percent or less of Americans get enough natural fiber to make up the recommended daily allowance of 25-28g per day, and that adding to the total by any means is a good thing.
Chelsey Keeler, a food scientist at General Mills (www.generalmills.com), echoes that sentiment, saying the company’s Fiber One energy bars help consumers by boosting their fiber intake. “Fiber One products are a way of ‘making treats count,’ or choosing snacks that provide more than just calories to help nudge nutrient intakes towards the goals we all strive to achieve,” Keeler says.
A map to FODMAPs
Complicating the matter further is the presence of a certain type of short-chain carbohydrate called FODMAPs, for “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.”
Some (not all) of these count as fiber, but they don’t have the beneficial qualities of fiber made of long-chain carbs. In fact, many consumers can’t absorb FODMAPs properly, and they can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, a condition suffered by an estimated 10-15 percent of the population.
Fody Foods (www.fodyfoods.com) markets a line of products low in FODMAPs that include sauces and salsas, bars and other snacks, breakfast cereal and more. “Our strategy to educate consumers is to work closely with dietitians, hospitals and gastroenterologists, universities, and even in concert with retailers for in-store education,” says Steven Singer, Fody founder and CEO.
Another aspect of digestive health receiving increased attention is probiotics. These are microorganisms that live in the human intestine and help break down food as part of the digestive process. The first high-profile marketing of probiotics in America was Dannon’s Activia yogurt, rolled out in 2003 (after being introduced in France in 1987).
Now, products with probiotics include chips, snack bars, granola, tea and other beverages and many more products. Most, but not all, of these are fermented, like yogurt. Fermentation creates a hospitable environment for the microorganisms and has other benefits, according to dietitian Kelsey Kinney: “Fermented foods, in addition to the probiotic cultures they provide, also create beneficial end-products like short-chain fatty acids and anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial compounds.”
Farmhouse Culture (www.farmhouseculture.com) markets probiotic-rich chips and beverages, as well as sauerkraut (its first product) and other fermented vegetables.
“There is an increasing interest in overall gut health, and many consumers recognize that probiotic-rich foods are an important part of that,” says Tim Lawlor, Farmhouse Culture’s director of brand strategy. “We are seeing consumers start to embrace a more holistic view of gut health, where fermented, probiotic-rich foods work in conjunction with a healthy diet, rich in fiber and other nutrients.”
EFFi Foods (www.effifoods.com), which markets probiotic snack bars and chickpea-based granola, was founded by Carina Ayden after she underwent several spinal surgeries. As she recovered, she wanted probiotics to help restore her digestive system.
“I asked my friends, can you bring me some probiotics from the pharmacy?” Ayden says. “And they looked at me like I was asking them to bring me something from the moon.” She also asked for kefir, a product with which she was familiar from her childhood in Russia; her friends didn’t know what that was either.
She resolved to develop probiotic-rich foods. It took her more than two years to find a probiotic strain that could be incorporated into the formulations. She finally settled on BC30 coated spores from Ganeden Biotech (www.ganedenbc30.com).
Whole Foods Market (www.wholefoodsmarket.com) was the first major retailer to carry EFFi’s products. To meet Whole Foods’ standards for products with a probiotic claim, EFFi had to take out some fat and sugar.
“I worked with the Whole Foods nutrition team for a few weeks to help perfect our nutrition profile,” Ayden says. “We actually had to reformulate a little bit, and I’m really glad that we did so.”
Digestive health is an increasing concern, especially among older consumers. Processors who can appeal to that concern with products that taste good will find that the way to consumers’ hearts is through their stomachs — and the rest of their digestive tracts.