Guest article

GPA: Prebiotics not just about fiber and go well beyond gut & digestive health

By Len Monheit, Executive Director, Global Prebiotic Association

- Last updated on GMT

Image © newannyart cropped / Getty Images
Image © newannyart cropped / Getty Images

Related tags: Prebiotics, Fiber, Polyphenols, Omega-3s

For years we’ve been predicting the arrival of the category to the main stage as the science booms, the ingredients with demonstrable prebiotic activity proliferate, consumers realize they can obtain prebiotics in multiple forms and formats, and the product developers respond in kind.

Depending on the source, those in the market expect explosive growth in upcoming years (as much as 10x in 5-7 years) as consumers continue to increase their understanding of the power of prebiotics to positively influence health in many ways – even beyond the gut. Across the category, there are notable developments shifting company priorities, behavior and consumer demand.

Inulin continues to be the dominant prebiotic for many human health applications. Unfortunately, demand has outstripped supply although new capacity has been invested in. This capacity won’t come online though, until late 2022 at the earliest. This means that those looking to enter the market or formulate in the interim will be looking at alternative ingredients such as GOS, acacia, guar, resistant starches and oligosaccharides with different sugars and linkages. It is not only single source – formulators are increasingly formulating with multiple prebiotic sources, including those seeking to improve their supply chain and footprint by using upcycled material. Newer prebiotic sources fit this bill well and this will continue to drive category popularity. On the flip side, we are seeing the early days of using data, artificial intelligence and biotech to create precision prebiotics (also called smart prebiotics) with demonstrable health benefits supported by analysis of metabolites.

The market has seen a proliferation of prebiotic products, formats and claims and 2022 is expected to deliver more of the same. Increasingly, and supported by rising consumer awareness and association, we are seeing formulations containing both prebiotics and probiotics.

GPA Consumer Chart
Courtesy of GPA

Paralleling developments in the prebiotic-only environment, these combinations are increasingly intelligently formulated rather than simply throwing in random combinations that have never been shown to be truly synbiotic. However, true science is often still weak on many of the combinations so there is much room for development, validation and differentiation at brand level.

Many consumers look first to foods and beverages as sources of prebiotics. One caution here for the category is to ensure that the dose is right – and efficacious. That’s where emerging prebiotics are going to play a major role; they are efficacious at smaller doses than traditional fiber-based prebiotics with doses for new-generation precision prebiotics often between 0.6 and 3 grams. This matches up nicely with existing knowledge that higher doses of certain prebiotics can also cause bloating and GI discomfort. We expect to increasingly see multiple precision prebiotics into targeted health concern directed products in a way that deliver synergistic benefits that potentially outweigh even mega-doses of more traditional prebiotics. This can make sense when you consider that different prebiotics and fibers are utilized and ferment at different speeds and locations along the GI tract. The upside potential for prebiotics in all categories and formats is bright and could make them the darlings of the microbiome in 2022 and beyond.

It’s not all about fiber. Polyphenols, selected botanicals, omega-3s and some vitamins have shown prebiotic activity. The Global Prebiotic Association now defines this as: “a health or performance benefit that arises from alteration of the composition and/or activity of the microbiota, as a direct or indirect result of the utilization of a specific and well-defined product or ingredient by microorganisms.”

Prebiotics are going well beyond gut and digestive health. Fueled by current events, research is mechanistically connecting a healthy microbiota to overall immune health, and going beyond immunity, extensive development in science linking the gut environment through the gut-brain axis – with an impact on stress and mood, and an important area for both health impact and product formulation. The next evolution is taking us past this axis and into other axes such as the gut-skin axis, and the more recent identification of the gut-lung axis and gut-heart axis – all with implications for prebiotics.

Exciting new platforms are emerging that make more practical and affordable processes such as pre-clinical research, genetic and metabolomic testing as the cycle-time between research and application collapses.  This is leading to new relationships between academics, platform companies and technologies, ingredient companies and brands. The outcome is faster identification and validation of ingredients, stressors and highly specific impacts that are making that elusive prospect of personalization a more likely near-term reality. Prebiotics are at the epicenter of this drive with several companies using precision prebiotics combined with these platform tools.

Both as a standalone category and in multi-ingredient formulations across a broad variety of product types, we expect the prebiotic category rise to lead all microbiota-impacting ingredient types.

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