One of the first functional foods was a digestive health product – Yakult – a probiotic drink a Japanese scientist began selling in his home country in the 1930s.
It has been overtaken in global sales by the likes of Danone’s Actimel spoonable and drinkable yoghurt (DanActive in the US) but remains a successful product in an increasingly promising category.
What digestive health has, that many other purported functional foods health benefits do not, is a near-instantaneous health effect. Consumers with digestive health issues draw real benefits from probiotic and prebiotic products that, if consumed at the right doses, generally deliver on their functional promise.
That is the key driver. In a world where a fair level of consumer scepticism remains toward many functional foods, probiotics have a rare level of trust.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, 95m people in the US suffer from digestive problems. Some 60m are thought to suffer from heartburn, and 50m from irritable bowel syndrome. In addition, it is estimated that around 20m people suffer from stomach ulcers.
Gut health products have a very real benefit on these conditions. Immunity benefits ar clinically backed also.
The other key ingredients in gut health are prebiotics – typically fibre-based ingredients that function as starter cultures for the development of healthy bacteria within the gut.
These products have branched out from their baked products core and moved into new areas such as dairy and bars.
An International Food Information Council survey found 77 per cent of people are actively trying to add fibre to their diets even as US Department of Agriculture figures show only one fifth of Americans get enough fibre in their diet.
Both sides of the Atlantic
Products aimed at gut health have traditionally been much more popular in Europe than North America, but this is changing as Americans embrace the idea of boosting gut health via foods and beverages.
Europe still leads the way in terms of product launches and market value, but North America is catching up fast, due in part to the remarkable success of Danone’s DanActive in North America. The gut health product was launched there in 2005 and built on its Activia presence.
It has quickly become a brand worth hundreds of millions of dollars and significantly raised awareness of probiotics and their health benefits in North America.
Statistics obtained from Mintel today show there have been 171 digestive health product launches in North America this year – 2.5 months shy of year’s end, compared to 133 in 2007. In 2006 there were 59 debuts, 19 in 2005 and only one in 2003.
The European-based version of the same product – Actimel – is a multi-billion dollar Danone flagship brand that has gone global and been trumpeting the benefits of probiotic consumption for some 20 years.
Much of this revenue continues to be drawn from Europe where digestive health remains a stellar category, although no longer rising as quickly as North America, or for that matter, latin America and Asia.
Mintel’s analysis reveals there were 511 launches in Europe in 2008. In 2007 there were 690, 454 in 2006, and 280 in 2005 and 15 in 2003.
Digestive health is not being lost on the growing middle classes of latin America and Asia, especially latin America where the year so far has seen 133 launches compared with 136 in 2007 and 28 in 2005.
Asia is rising from a lower base but has 32 debuts for the year compared with 26 in 2007 and four in 2004.
Across all regions there have been 2057 digestive health launches this year.
Some way to go
Despite the optimism there is still some way to go for the category – one study in the US found only 15 percent of American adults were familiar with probiotics.
However, Ioannis Misopoulos, executive director of the International Probiotics Association (IPA), told NutraIngredients-USA.com that “awareness is definitely low, but that is changing”.
He noted that a couple of years ago only five per cent of Americans knew what probiotics were.