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The gut-brain connection: Products should ‘lead with the benefits and support with the science’

Article-The gut-brain connection: Products should ‘lead with the benefits and support with the science’

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Products that draw on the gut-brain axis should be aspirational, slot effortlessly into daily routines, and be backed by qualitative and quantitative research, if they are to win consumers over, according to industry experts.

‘Butterflies in the stomach’ and ‘gut wrenching experiences’ are not figments of the imagination. They are manifestations of the gut-brain connection that can link emotional and mental state to intestinal problems. Scientists are starting to unravel this relationship and as they do, this is creating new opportunities for the food and beverage industry.

As part of the Fi webinar series, Mike Hughes, head of research and insight at FMCG Gurus, and Miguel Toribio-Mateas, head of R&D at Chuckling Goat, took part in a panel discussion on this topic. During this Q&A session, they shared some valuable insights into how manufacturers can develop concepts that will appeal to consumers.

Hughes kicked off the debate by outlining the context to the rise in consumer interest in addressing emotional health via the gut microbiome.

“The social taboos around problems like digestive health and mental wellness have disappeared. Ten years ago consumers were self-conscious about admitting to these issues,” he noted.

He said that the breaking of taboos, combined with the proactive approach consumers are taking towards educating themselves on health, means people are starting to figure out the gut-brain connection out for themselves.

“In the next ten years there is going to be a lot of research into establishing the link between digestive health and mental wellness. I know that brands are reluctant to make the link but consumers are already making it. People notice that digestive health issues such as bloating, constipation and IBS impact on other areas of their lives: sleep, energy and happiness, for example.” he said.

That, he said, is one of the reasons why consumers will buy into the gut-brain axis and why it is a trend that will intensify over the next decade.

Toribio-Mateas agreed that consumers are already there with their thinking, saying: “We encounter a lot of people with gut dysbiosis or imbalance. It comes and goes; the ups and downs of life are mirrored in the gut microbiome. This is reflected in what people are telling us and in biomarkers from tests. That is enabling us to develop the next generation of gut health products.”

He too predicted that this trend is set to gain traction: “I am excited by the unravelling of science of the gut microbiome and its connection with emotional health because I think it brings opportunities for the industry to tap into an area where there is a strong consumer appetite,” he said.

Secrets of success

Both panelists agreed that in order for products to succeed in this space, they need to taste good, fit easily into daily life and deliver on their functional promise.

According to Hughes, “incremental change” is the key here, and brands shouldn’t overestimate how willing consumers are to make changes.

“Consumers want products that contribute to their long term health but they realise dieting is a challenge and don’t want to make fundamental changes that involve a sacrifice. If brands can launch products that have science-backed claims and can be easily incorporated into their diets, they will be more appealing to consumers,” he said.

“It is about assisting consumers with products that make them think: ‘this is a relatively easy and straightforward way to boost my health over the long term’,” he added.

A little knowledge not a lot…

Something else that manufacturers shouldn’t overestimate is consumer knowledge on the specifics of science, according to Hughes.

“Although consumers are educating themselves on certain areas of health, it is important not to overestimate consumer knowledge. They may know something is good for them but they can’t explain why. The gut microbiome is a prime example of that,” he said.

For example, Hughes said that from FMCG Gurus’ research it was apparent that consumers sometimes lack an understanding of the difference between probiotics and prebiotics and how they compliment one another in the gut.

“This increases the risk of consumers saying they will buy one or the other because they are the same,” he cautioned.

“Prebiotics offer a lot of untapped potential. Consumer awareness is growing and there has been an increase in purchasing over the last couple of years. But whilst there is a big opportunity around prebiotics, there is a need for education,” he said.

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Fibre should take lessons from protein

There’s not only a need for education around prebiotic fibres but also an image overhaul, for reasons Hughes explained, in the context of Arla’s ill-fated Fibre yogurt launch back in 2018.

“I don’t think was a case of wrong format or time - I think it was the way the ingredient was communicated. Consumers have aspirational views of protein – they think it is cool and they think more protein is better - whereas they think fibres are bland and boring,” said Hughes.

“Ultimately, when you position an ingredient as a necessity, it doesn’t incite enthusiasm. If a consumer is going to be convinced to take something long term it needs to taste good and be aspirational. Brands should take inspiration from the sports nutrition market,” he added.

Picking up on this point, Toribio-Mateas added that there needs to be an aspirational element to any product to succeed in this space, and that brands cannot rely on science alone. 

“The science might be huge, but equally, the education gap might be so large that it is impossible to convey the benefits to consumers and even if you can, it might be impossible to get them excited about it. There are a number of boxes that need to be ticked.”

Lead on the benefits

In terms of communicating the science, Hughes’ advice was to major on the benefits rather than the ingredients.

“The benefit is more important than the ingredients - consumers won’t go into a supermarket and say they want to purchase products containing certain ingredients, but if the product says, in big letters, what the benefit is, then explains the science and ingredients in smaller print, I think that is the way to go. Lead with the benefits and support with the science.”

Toribio-Mateas acknowledged that randomised clinical trials were “non-negotiable” for evidencing product and ingredient efficacy.

“We are talking about the safety and regulatory aspects of products and consumers need to be absolutely clear in their minds that the product will do what it says on the tin,”  he said.

Accounting for emotion

However, he lamented the absence of any qualitative dimension to the clinical research that has been carried out in this field, and said the scientific community was “missing a trick” in that it didn’t account for emotionally driven behaviours.

“In randomised, controlled trials, each person becomes a number, branched out into cohorts so that the efficacy of the product can be assessed. This is wonderful because we it reduces the likelihood of the benefits being down to chance. However, this purely quantitative approach ignores the emotions of the people, how those emotions are leading to food choices and how those food choices are impacting on gut health,” he said.

He continued: “In future trials, there is an opportunity to include qualitative research that puts the voice of the consumer in the picture, so it is not just about ‘what is that microbe doing?’ or ‘what is that combination of prebiotics and probiotics doing?’. Clearly that is important to know from a health claims perspective, but the way in which it is affecting consumers’ emotional health needs to be taken into account. Combining qualitative and quantitative elements could be really exciting for the future.”