Surging demand and new science to drive prebiotic opportunity in 2021 and beyond

By By Len Monheit, Executive Director, Global Prebiotic Association and Nathan Gray, Science & Technical Director, Global Prebiotic Association

- Last updated on GMT

©Getty Images - Jongho Shin
©Getty Images - Jongho Shin

Related tags: Prebiotic, prebiotic fiber, Prebiotic ingredients

The prebiotic category continues to be buoyed by scientific advances as we deepen our understanding of the microbiome.

In 2020 we saw this supported by an intense focus on immunity, increased awareness of overall gut health, and growing awareness of the microbiome and its effects on human health. Together with growing consumer knowledge of prebiotics, the term ‘prebiotic’ has become something of a health halo to shoppers, resulting in surging demand in the aisles and increased use in food, beverage and supplement formulations.

We now know that the gut mediates so many of our bodily functions and the state of our gut microbiome is vital to health and wellness –  whether it’s nutrient absorption, biochemical synthesis or stimulating other bodily systems. Research has given us a deeper understanding of the gut’s role in satiety, stress signaling, inflammation mitigation, and many phytonutrients are now being shown to have gut-mediated mechanisms, even at minuscule levels. 

All of this has led to the identification of, and research into, novel prebiotic types, new mechanistic pathways and new benefits – all of which are areas GPA expects to see rapid development in throughout 2021.

Rising demand

Demand for prebiotics has been growing steadily in recent years, resulting in strong growth for the category and a number of major suppliers looking to expand production or enter the market. 

Perhaps the most widely known and most-used prebiotic is inulin, especially from chicory root. Inulin has been on the market for decades, however its popularity has surged as the prebiotic category has evolved, and consumption has risen in recent years. 

Earlier this year BENEO announced a €50 million EUR investment in its chicory root production in order to meet growing market demands, while Galam spent $20 million USD to open two new prebiotic plants specializing in fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS). Just this month Sensus said it will committing to ‘significant’ expansion of its production capacities in 2021.

Although multiple suppliers are increasing capacity, this increase is not expected to hit the markets until late 2021 at the earliest, meaning there may be some time before supply catches up with demand. The industry has also been a significant increase in demand for organic inulin. Earlier this year BENEO completed the first large-scale commercial harvest of organic chicory root.

This shortfall in supply of certain well-known ingredients in the space has fueled, and will continue to fuel, opportunities for other prebiotic ingredients including other sources of FOS, GOS, XOS, and resistant starch. HMOs are another emerging prebiotic that have been the subject of much applied research, and huge focus from major industry players. Earlier this year Kyowa Hakko made noise with their commitment to getting into the category.

Developing science

Prebiotic science continues to flourish. From digestive discomfort​, to immunity and gut barrier functions​, to impacts on metabolism​ and even sleep and stress​, there’s been a plethora of science touting the benefits of prebiotics in 2020.

In particular, the growing links between the gut and brain continue to fascinate researchers and industry alike. Earlier this year a review suggested​ probiotics and prebiotics may help to ease depression, while a review of the role of prebiotics in cognition, anxiety and depression concluded​ that “prebiotics may provide patients suffering from cognitive deficits, depression, and anxiety with a new tool to minimize disease symptoms and increase the quality of life.”

But it hasn’t just been about developing science for traditional prebiotics like FOS, GOS, or resistant starch​ though, we’ve also seen massive interest in developing emerging sources and in identifying novel prebiotics – including exploring whether well-known dietary ingredients may also act as prebiotics. From new and emerging prebiotics such as AXOS, chitooligosaccharides and neoagaro-oligosaccharides​ to a swell of research validating the impacts of HMOs​ as a prebiotic, the massive interest in the potential for polyphenols​ to act as prebiotics, and recent suggestions that vitamin D​ may impact microbiome diversity and act in a prebiotic manner by stimulating growth of butyrate producing bacteria.

Many of these new and ‘emerging’ prebiotics, including XOS and polyphenols, can be formulated at low dosages, increasing their formulation viability in supplement forms. Developers are also using multiple prebiotics to take advantage of complementary mechanisms of action. Coupling this with the functional benefits of prebiotics, for example benefits for taste, texture, or an ability to replace sugar by adding sweetness, means that prebiotics are some of the most versatile ingredients around. 

Outside of the gut, there have been rapid developments in science validating the use of prebiotics for the skin microbiome – which has begun to translate into growing consumer and industry interest in prebiotics for skin health, according to Lumina Intelligence​. 

Stewarding the category

The Global Prebiotic Association grew by 50% in 2020, and expects to maintain that pace through 2021. Larger entities such as ADM and Friesland Campina are highly engaged, as are many core players in the prebiotics market.

November 2020 saw the first ever Global Prebiotic Week, a celebration of all things prebiotic that was a huge success in bringing prebiotics to a wider audience. We also introduced our Young Researcher Grant Program, with the recipient of a $2500 USD grant set to be announced in early 2021. 

GPA also continues to track consumer and dietitian interest and behaviors in our survey and insights work, including what they know, why they buy or recommend and year over year changes and influences.

On the product side, we’ve been tracking companies like Uplift Foods, Olipop and Muniq for a while now, but companies such as Flourish are emerging. To date, however, there has been no major CPG steward for the category –  despite Mondelez getting in the game early with their 2019 minority investment in Uplift Foods.

So … what next?

While for many reasons 2020 may not be a year to remember, it was a strong year for growth in the prebiotic space. We expect this growth to continue next year, as further technology, research and product breakthroughs drive growth in 2021. 

In fact, 20201 promises to be the most exciting yet for the prebiotic category. 

We expect to see further development work on small dose formats leading to further research and product launches, and foresee even more work on gut mediated axes – especially in research further linking prebiotics to the gut-brain axis.

GPA is also excited about our researcher engagement initiative. We intend to springboard from our Young Researcher grant program into other programs that will support research, as well as generating additional interaction with healthcare practitioners such as dietitians.

We’ve significantly increased our footprint in 2020 through a series of educational sessions, webinars, workshops and online events to help engage and educate the industry on prebiotics. We’ve also called out groups exploiting the growing popularity of prebiotics. We will continue these initiatives to ensure the category is championed and well-stewarded for those who are responsible.

Prebiotics continues to be one of the most promising ingredient categories, with huge potential for rapid growth in coming years. 

We can’t wait for 2021, and beyond.

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