The term ‘functional foods’ encompasses a very broad range of products, with some products being generated around a particular ‘functional’ ingredient, for example, containing probiotics, prebiotics, or plant stanols and sterols. Outside of the more performance-oriented benefits that such products are claimed to offer, they are of particular interest for consumers looking to add health benefits to meals. With the health trend on the rise and offering increasing opportunities for manufacturers to expand their product ranges, now is the time for producers to consider adding additional functionality to their food products.

In particular, the emphasis should be on providing products that fit into broader lifestyle and wellness trends. Brands do not necessarily need to boldly proclaim that products are a health item, but should instead look to incorporate this information more organically. With the broad, and growing, popularity of health and wellness in consumer’s product choices, it is down to manufacturers to incorporate functional benefits in a more holistic manner.

The variety of functionalities available provides a diverse range of opportunities for manufacturers to expand their product ranges and the steady rise of health-conscious consumers means that now is the time to get in on the ground floor for such offerings.

Prebiotic and probiotic: the difference between them and what they can offer 

While they may sound similar, and certainly operate in an interconnected manner, prebiotics and probiotics are quite different. However, both offer significant health and nutritional benefits that should be considered for inclusion into new products. According to the 2015 paper ‘Prebiotics: why definitions matter’, prebiotics have been defined in a manner that has evolved over time, in part due to a conflict between the term’s origin in chemistry literature and its origin in medical and nutritional literature and in part due to the expanding nature of discovery over time. However, the original 1995 introduction of the concept serves as a good foundation for understanding the potential benefits and application, defining prebiotics as such: ‘a nondigestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, and thus improves host health’.

Probiotics, on the other hand, may be more familiar to consumers and producers alike given their prevalent promotion in products such as Activia and other such yoghurts.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, ‘probiotics are live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits’. Notably, a 2001 consultation by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States and the World Health Organisation used the more generous definition of ‘live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host’ (this definition was upheld in 2013 by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics). The difference highlights the ongoing debate over the effectiveness of probiotics and how they should be regulated, although it is generally accepted that they are safe for consumption and there is some clinical evidence to suggest they can help with specific digestion-related medical conditions.

There are legitimate questions to consider regarding the effectiveness of both pro and prebiotics and how they are currently regulated (mostly around the extent of health claims). However, given that their safety has only been called into question in distinctly rare circumstances and there is evidence to suggest their potential health benefits, they represent a legitimate field for expansion. In particular, the prospect of ‘synbiotic’ products combining both pre and probiotic elements should be considered for potential benefits. Producers need to be sure to know the difference, and how these two different elements interact but, with the proper information, there is room for great growth in these markets. 

Market promise for probiotics, in spite of notes of caution

According to ReportBuyer, the global probiotics market is predicted to reach $66.04bn by 2024 (this forecast includes animal feed probiotics in addition to human dietary supplements and food & drink products). The report indicates that, for humans at least, the growth is going to be driven by probiotic enhanced food and drink products. Within this category dairy products command the majority share, of which yoghurt and yoghurt-based beverages are the most commonly consumed. This could present a challenge to producers looking to operate outside of the dairy market but could also allow for the enticement of consumers looking to diversify.

However, there are important notes of caution to consider. Although there is some evidence to suggest that probiotics can be helpful with certain specific medical conditions, there is also a dearth of evidence to back up much of the vast swathe of health claims made by manufacturers. In 2010, the Dannon Company Inc. settled Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges of deceptive advertising and dropped claims that, according to the FTC, exaggerated the health benefits of its Activia and DanActive products. Furthermore, recent reporting by the New York Times indicates that there may be a variety of risks inherent to probiotics that have been overlooked in the rush to market them as the next health craze.

Setting aside risks posed to immune-compromised individuals, the Times’ reporting highlights that not only are the health claims being made by probiotic products questionable, and often extremely limited in scope, but that these claims may be slipping through regulatory oversight. For example, although probiotic research will generally involve the use of very specific strains and samples will be pure, probiotic food products present no such confirmation of purity. Consumers latch onto probiotic food products due to the health claims they associate with them but those claims, even if accurate to certain strains in certain cases, cannot be assumed to be transferrable to all probiotic products. Although consumers with uncompromised immune systems are unlikely to be at risk from such products, they are also perhaps unlikely to be receiving all of the health benefits they believe they have bought into.

As Dr Pieter Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told the New York Times. “It’s important that consumers understand that all those nicely labelled containers on store shelves are not vetted by the FDA. They’re not carefully watching over the probiotic space, leaving consumers to be the guinea pigs for these science experiments.” 

Prebiotics: good for the gut and already prominent in consumer diets

If probiotics may be an investment that requires a more circumspect approach; what about prebiotics? According to Hexa Research, the global market for prebiotics is predicted to reach $7.91bn by 2025 and be driven by demand for prebiotic supplements and, increasingly, prebiotic ingredients in food and beverages (particularly dairy products). Food and beverages accounted for more than 80% of the global share of prebiotic application in 2016 so the market continues to be a solid bet, particularly with the accessibility of dairy products expected to enhance the development of the segment. Of particular note, Europe currently leads the market but Asia Pacific is anticipated to achieve the fastest growth with a CAGR of 10.2% in Hexa’s forecast period.

In terms of what they can offer, prebiotics have a fair laundry list of health claims. Their connection to the digestive system makes them prime candidates for improving gut function and, by relation, can have a knock-on positive effect on the immune system. In general, the potential of prebiotics to improve function in the digestive system can provide several related benefits, such as metabolism regulation and obesity prevention. The research around these benefits has not necessarily been specifically focused on prebiotics but the ingredients’ general supportive function in digestion lends credence to the notion. Though manufacturers should take note from probiotics to be cautious about being too bold in their claims, prebiotics make a good case for fitting into the wellness trend.

Setting aside any specific claims, prebiotic foods fit into the general rise in health and wellness consciousness and, by emphasising the basic link between prebiotics and gut health, brands can serve to give their products a boost.  Of particular advantage to producers is that consumers may already, without necessarily knowing it, be eating prebiotic foods. Notable examples of prebiotic foods include chicory, banana, barley, oats and apples.

There are many more that consumers are likely already purchasing but these examples show that prebiotics are already well positioned to enter more widely into consumer diets. Brands do not need to break the idea of something brand new, but rather look to acknowledge that something consumers may have considered anyway is in fact far better for them than expected. By including such ingredients and emphasising their prebiotic qualities, producers can latch onto consumer appeal that already exists.

Speaking to Karen Revel-Chion, global marketing director at Clasado BioSciences, the future seems promising: “There is exciting work going on looking at the impact of prebiotics on different life stages and also on the gut brain axis as some studies have shown the link between our gut health and mood/mental wellbeing.  The beneficial properties of prebiotic ingredients at either end of the population life cycle, kids and the elderly, is likely to propel demand for prebiotic products over the coming years. We will see more products targeted specifically at informed parents, keen to care for their children’s long-term gut health on the back of increasing research into the gut-brain axis. Also, as more people become aware of the impact of the reduction of good bacteria in our gut as we age – the bifidobacteria drop – on things such as immunity, we are likely to see products emerge targeted at the older consumer.”