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The gut health trend is here to stay – but how will it evolve?

Article-The gut health trend is here to stay – but how will it evolve?

© iStock/jurden kombucha, fermented, probiotic,gut health, iStock-jurden, 1294202740.jpg
The gut health trend is here to stay, and it is set to evolve as food and drink brands leverage a growing scientific understanding of the microbiome to respond to increasingly diverse consumer health complaints, according to industry experts speaking at a Fi Global Insights webinar.

Around 40% of the global population suffers from at least one functional gastrointestinal disorder, according to 2021 research published in the journal Gastroenterology, while research into the gut microbiome continues to reveal the impact it has on other areas of health. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that demand for food, drink, and supplements that can aid gut health is on the rise.

In March, two industry experts – Rick Miller, associate director of specialised nutrition at Mintel, and Freya Twigden, entrepreneur and founder of two UK gut health drink brands, Fibe and Fix8 – came together for a Fi Global Insights webinar to discuss current and future dynamics of a growing category: functional food and drink products for gut health.

Miller was bullish about the prospects for the category in coming years. Asked whether he thought it was a passing fad or whether brands could count on it having longevity, he said gut health was “here to stay”.

He explained: “I think the reason for that […]  is, not only are we seeing the clinical evidence from established healthcare bodies saying that more people around the world are suffering with functional gastric disorders and the more serious ones. But also, in line with that, brands are responding to that outcry from consumers for specific products that can help them either with symptoms or indeed on the more preventative angle.”

Public interest in gut health ties into another leading trend for holistic health, which recognises a connection between physical health and mental wellbeing, he added.  

“If any brand is thinking, ‘Will this be gone in a year or two; is it flash in the pan?’ Absolutely not. This is evolving and becoming more extensive and more exciting as we as we look into it further,” Miller said.

Link gut health to other priority areas: Eye health, immunity, and mental wellbeing

Thinking of how the category will evolve in the next five years, Miller advised forward-thinking brands to consider how gut health has extended into other areas of health – and will continue to do so.

As scientific research uncovers the mechanisms behind the gut-brain axis, for instance, products could offer benefits around cognitive function or mood. With 70 to 80% of the body’s immune cells being present in the gut, immunity could be another appealing positioning. However, one key “priority area” that can be linked to the microbiome, said Miller, is eye health. 

Writing in a 2021 review of research to date, scientists said that ophthalmological studies had demonstrated the existence of a gut-eye axis. Admitting that this position was still “controversial”, the scientists described how imbalances in intestinal microbiota may influence the onset and progression of eye diseases such as uveitis, dry eye, macular degeneration, and glaucoma.

According to Miller, eye health is a promising area for gut brands to explore, particularly as screen time and blue light exposure is rising around the world. Mintel research also shows that Asian consumers are more concerned about the health effects of technology than sugar intake, Miller noted.

There has been an explosion in the number of people reporting eye health problems and while there are no approved health claims around gut and eye health, consumers are looking for preventative solutions in this area, he said.

Brands could use, for example, probiotic strains that may help with gut microbiota via the gut-eye axis, combined with other ingredients that are associated with eye health, such as essential fatty acids or lutein, he said.

Two products, two positionings: Leveraging gut health in kombucha and soda

Freya Twigden is the founder of two beverage brands that leverage gut health claims but with very different positionings and target consumers: Fibe, a prebiotic soda, and Fix8, a kombucha. 

The company’s first brand, Fix8 kombucha, has an adult positioning with sophisticated flavours that include Sicilian citrus; strawberry and basil; and ginger and turmeric. Each Fix8 can bears the description “live sparkling soda” and makes a front-of-pack claim around its low calorie content and immune health properties.

Fibe, on the other hand, offers classic soda-style flavours such as lemonade, fruit punch, and orangeade but boasts about its health benefits with the front-of-pack slogan “Soda but better”. One 250 ml can of Fibe soda contains 3.75 g of sugar, compared with around 30 g in a can of Coca-Cola. (See the end of the article for the full ingredient list for both drinks).

Twigden said she first got the idea for creating Fibe after speaking to soda drinkers and getting a better understanding of what drove them to choose soda – and what turned them off kombucha.    

“They just didn't want to ever get their head around kombucha. They didn't align with it; it was way too hipster and they just want to drink soda,” she said.

“So that's when I started thinking, ‘OK, if I'm never going to fulfil a need for you [with kombucha], how can I create a healthier drink that gives you that soda experience?’ [One that] tastes like soda, feels like soda, is priced a bit more similarly to soda, but has actually got some functional health benefits. And when I was looking into the science, fibre was really where it was pointing to.”

Which gut health ingredients resonate most?

Both brands, Fibe and Fix8, use a variety of microbiome-friendly ingredients in their products: inulin, chicory root, live kombucha cultures, and lactic acid bacillus, a probiotic.

However, manufacturers have an expanding range of gut health ingredients to use in their food, drink, and supplement products, from added fibre to the full biotics family that includes probiotics (live microorganisms that confer a health benefit upon the host); prebiotics (a substrate that probiotic microorganisms feed upon); and postbiotics (inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that deliver a health benefit).

(Click here to read the full definitions of probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics, and fermented foods developed by ISAPP, the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics.)

But which ones resonate most with the public? According to Miller, consumers seem to favour probiotics. 

“That's not to say at all that prebiotics are ineffective – [they] can actually be more effective in terms of clinical symptomology, and also in terms of health stability and unique benefits,” he told webinar attendees.

“It's simply that I think there's a kind of overarching emphasis from consumers that if something is ‘fresh’, ‘live’, or ‘raw’ in some way – these kind of health halos, as I like to call them – there's an automatic perception from the consumer that it's somehow better.”

The other underlying reason is that the term “probiotic” has been around for longer than “prebiotic” or “postbiotic”.

Miller said: “There's some ground to be caught up, I think, and unfortunately it is down to brands to communicate that to consumers: the differences between these ingredients and the unique benefits that they can provide.”

A huge ‘mindset shift’ in education and awareness

Despite this continued knowledge gap, the needle has undoubtedly moved forward in terms of consumer awareness of gut health ingredients more generally. Twigden said she has witnessed a significant shift in mindset since founding her business.

“When I started out, I would say the word ‘kombucha’ to somebody and they would think I was speaking French,” she said. “So even in five to six years, we've seen a massive [growth in] education and awareness of not just kombucha but of gut health.

“I think it's because the science is much more accessible now: we tune into podcasts, there are great books out there, [and] there are great speakers on the topic, which means that it's not just for scientific journals but everyday consumers can understand and be interested in gut health.”

A closer look at the Fibe and Fix8 ingredient list
The ingredient list for the Fix8 Sicilian orange kombucha is: filtered water, kombucha cultures, sencha green tea, sugar, natural flavouring, Sicilian orange extract, saffron extract, vitamin C, and lactic acid bacillus.

Fibe Zesty Orange soda contains: water, prebiotic fibre blend (chicory root, inulin, calcium lactate, vitamin C), fructose, natural orange flavour, citric acid, natural orange flavours made from apple and carrot extract, and stevia.