However, much of this growth was being driven by an interest in sugar, fat and calorie reduction rather than an interest in the bifidogenic effects of prebiotics (their ability to stimulate the growth of ‘good’ gut bacteria), noted research associate Tejaswini Prabhu.
“Companies that have successfully launched prebiotic products in the US [Beneo Orafti, Sensus America and GTC nutrition etc] market the low-calorie and sugar-free aspect of the product as much as the prebiotic effects. Rarely are individual prebiotic claims made.”
But while probiotics might have caught consumers’ imaginations more than prebiotics, the latter arguably had greater potential in the food market, because they had multiple benefits and were easier to incorporate into products than live bacteria, he pointed out.
“It is difficult and expensive to add probiotics to products such as bread."
As for product launches featuring prebiotics, the most activity was in cereals and baked goods, said Kim Elrick, natural products specialist at the SPINS Product Library: “Over the past year we’ve seen more product launches containing prebiotics in cereal, bread, baked goods and energy bars and these products seem to be doing well. Pet food also seems to be trending towards prebiotic labeling. I feel athletic drinks and sports bars also have marketability with prebiotic labeling.”
Size of the prebiotic prize
While a wide range of ingredients potentially had prebiotic effects, inulin and oligofructose – most commonly derived from chicory roots – were the most successful, and the most researched, said Prabhu at Frost & Sullivan.
“The prebiotic market in the US is worth approximately $ 110m. Of this, about 35% is for inulin, 25% for mannan oligosaccharides (MOS) and 10% for fructan oligosaccharides (FOS).
“Inulin has the highest potential because of its texture similar to fat. This allows it to be utilized in low calorie foods and beverages. Next come fructo oligosaccharides which are functional as natural sugar replacers. These are beneficial for diabetics and go in line with the sugar-free trend, especially in the US.”
Galactofructans (prebiotics from milk/lactose, which suppliers claim can be used at lower dosages and in more applications than inulin because they are heat and acid stable) also had considerable potential, he said.
Resistant starch, meanwhile, had potential as a satiety ingredient as well as a prebiotic, he added.
Baobab, cranberries and honey – the next generation of prebiotics?
But other ingredients shown to have some prebiotic effects were also emerging, from cocoa to apples, wheat, honey, baobab, cranberries and other fruits, he said.
“Research is going on to enhance the prebiotic effects of natural foods such as honey. Honey is a popular food ingredient with benefits pertaining to weight loss. It is also claimed to possess medicinal and antimicrobial properties. Therefore, such natural prebiotic food products could increase consumer acceptance in future.”
Healthy gut flora not seen by consumers as beneficial per se
In the longer-term, the ability of prebiotics to reduce the risk of certain cancers might be where the biggest benefits were seen to lie, although this raised regulatory challenges for firms in the food and supplements arena, he accepted.
“Some fructans have been researched to control colorectal cancers. Since these claims are more specific than just promotion of healthy gut bacteria, these messages have more resonance than a prebiotic claim.”
In the short-term, US customers were more focused on using prebiotic fibers to reduce calories/fat/sugar or add 'invisible fiber' to baked goods, cereals, nutrition bars, baby food/infant formula and cultured, fluid and frozen dairy applications, said Joseph O’Neill, executive vice president of sales and marketing at inulin and oligofructose market leader Beneo Orafti.
"Growth over the last few years has been exponential."
Euromonitor, which predicts strong growth for prebiotics in infant formula and follow-on milk, believes focusing on 'prebiotic fiber' and 'digestive health' is the way forward for US marketers, given the strong awareness of fiber and growing interest in digestive health, even if consumers are not (yet) very clued up about how prebiotics work and how they differ from probiotics, said head of global health and wellness research Ewa Hudson.