Special edition: Pre- and Probiotics

Prebiotics as a concept still not well understood by many consumers, experts say

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Prenexus Health makes its XOS prebiotic ingredient from high fiber sugar cane.
Prenexus Health makes its XOS prebiotic ingredient from high fiber sugar cane.
Research done by the Global Prebiotic Association shows that prebiotics as a concept is gaining traction with dedicated supplement users but has a long way to go to gain mainstream acceptance.

Steven Hanson, senior vice president of global sales for member company PreNexus Health and a board member of the organization shared with NutraIngredients-USA some of the findings of the survey. The key takeaway is that wile dedicated supplement users might be conversant with the term ‘prebiotics,’ more casual supplement users are not.

Supplement veterans have some understanding of term

“Prebiotics have the greatest awareness among people who are currently regular users of supplements,”​ Hanson said.  ‘Regular users’ were defined for purposes of the survey as consumers who take four or more supplements a week.

“There is less understanding among casual users of supplements,” ​he said.

Glenn Gibson, PhD, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Reading in the UK, is thought of as one of the pioneers of the category and is credited with coining the term ‘prebiotic’ back in 1995 with collaborator Marcel Roberfroid, PhD. Even with decades of work, the category and the term remain cryptic for the average consumer.

“I am not surprised that consumers already familiar with health foods and supplements take this on board more readily,” ​Gibson said.

Little understanding of actual ingredients

Hanson said GPA’s research shows that supplement users are still somewhat confused about exactly what a ‘prebiotic’ is.

“The dedicated supplement users understand that a prebiotic is for digestive health. They understand the role of fiber, but they don’t necessarily equate prebiotics with fiber,” ​ he said.

Hanson said that the picture becomes murkier when one delves down to the ingredients themselves.

“The knowledgable supplement users are looking for products labeled ‘prebiotic.’ But even then, they do not understand the differences between, inulin, a FOS or a GOS,”​ he said.

Educational resource

To help educate consumes on the benefits of these ingredients, Prenexus Health has launched called prebiotics.com​. The website features content pitched toward the average consumer.

“We developed some of the content ourselves and worked with some outside consultants to put it together,”​ Hanson said.

The site features basic descriptions of what prebiotics do as well as a description of the various kinds of ingredients on the market.

“This content was reviewed by some other companies in the industry,”​ Hanson said. “We are going to be marketing it via search engine positioning.  If someone searches for prebiotics, we want it to be one of the site that is close to the top of the search results.”

Hanson will present the full results of the consumer survey on Friday at teh Supply Side West trade show at 11:20 am at the Probiotics Resource Center, booth 5355.

Large number of forms could confuse consumers

One of the potential confusing factors with prebiotics is the significant number of forms on teh market, which could potentially confuse consumers. After all, with probiotics, even with all of the strains being sold, they are all similar microorganisms. 

 For prebiotics, the definition is more of a functional one.  There are a number of complex carbohydrate molecules on the market making a prebiotic claim.  These ingredients seem to have less in common with one another than do the probiotics.  And now even some polyphenol-based ingredients are making prebiotic noises, too.

Gibson puts the issue in more black and white terms. If you have proven your ingredient’s prebiotic activity via studies, then you’re a prebiotic.  If not, then you have a way to go before you can in good conscience use the term.

“I don't think there is a plethora [of proven ingredients]. You need in vivo tests to confirm a prebiotic - reproducible and multiple versions of them. This means human intervention for human use. In that regard fructans and galactans easily dominate the field. Others like oligomers of mannose, xylose, starch, pectin, cellulose, human milk, etc. as well as polydextrose,  need more in vivo evidence to further realize their promise. At the moment, that is lacking,” ​he said.

Regulatory pitfalls

Also adding to the confusion is the checkered regulatory history of the ingredient category.  In the US, FDA released a guidance on isolated and purified fibers in which in concluded that many of the prebiotic ingredients on the market did not meet its definition of dietary fiber.  Manufacturers have been playing catch up since​ by putting together dossiers to meet FDA’s call for more evidence.

Prebiotics have also had a tough row to hoe in the European Union, too. While some manufacturers have managed to shepherd prebiotic claims through the complicated EFSA process, others have found it more difficult​.

Despite reg hurdles, science will continue

Gibson said part of the confusion seems to stem from the standards of evidence certain regulatory bodies have required.  As nutrition studies have become more sophisticated, these regulatory goal posts seem to have shifted more toward a pharma model.  While Gibson rues this development, he said it’s unlikely to dampen innovation in the field.

“The science will continue anyway, as the health issues are too important to ignore. Some legislation asks for cause and effect proof which I think is unrealistic,”​ he said.

“Apparently pharma regulation is as stringent as possible but I do not see much cause and effect proof there, e.g. does an aspirin really get rid of a headache or does it go away naturally?Can an an antibiotic be definitely proven to deal with an infection or has the later seen its course? 

“Say you do a human study that is blinded, controlled well and uses robust techniques and is published in a reputable jounrnal - the only difference is prebiotic vs a placebo. Then changes in symptoms or valid health biomarkers occur in conjunction with microbiome changes with the prebiotic, then it must be because of the intervention,” ​Gibson concluded.

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