IFIC: More Americans seek pro- and prebiotics, but confusion about sources abounds

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/MarsBars
Source: Getty/MarsBars

Related tags IFIC Probiotics Prebiotics Gut health microbiome Research

More Americans are trying to consume probiotics and prebiotics than a year ago, but many are confused about the best sources for each and the relationship between them, fermentation and strain-specificity – hindering their goals, according to new data from the International Food Information Council (IFIC).

According to IFIC’s recently released Consumer Insights on Gut Health and Probiotics, about one-third of Americans actively try to consume probiotics with 60% of these trying to do so daily and 24% multiple times a day. This is up from last year, according to IFIC’s 2020 Food and Health Survey, which found about 31% of Americans in 2020 were trying to consume probiotics and fewer than 20% tried to consume prebiotics.

The top reasons that Americans try to consume probiotics is to support their gut health (51%), their general health and wellness (38%), their immune health (33%), and their mental or emotional health (13%), according to IFIC.

However, their ability to meet these health goals may be hindered by confusion about what probiotics and prebiotics do and where to find them, IFIC’s online survey of 1,000 adults conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies between March 4 and 9 found.

Only about two-thirds of Americans are familiar with probiotics and about half are familiar with prebiotics, according to the survey, which also found 21% weren’t sure how they would know if a food or beverage contained probiotics.

The vast majority of consumers rely on specific labels to determine if a product contains probiotics with 44% looking for ‘contains probiotics,’ 31% looking for ‘supports digestive/gut health,’ 30% looking for ‘contains live and active cultures,’ 19% seeing claims about the number of colon-forming units or probiotic bacteria and 17% seeing types of bacteria listed on the packaging, according to the survey.

Consumers are confused where to find pre- and probiotics

Despite looking for labels, many consumers turn to the same products for probiotics and prebiotics, even though foods might not be a good source of both – underscoring how shoppers may conflate pro- and prebiotics and are confused about how to source each, according to IFIC.

The top products sought after for pro- and prebiotics are yogurt and kefir, which 54% turn to for probiotics and 38% for prebiotics even though prebiotics are not consistently found in these products. Likewise, IFIC found 47% of consumers believe that fruits and vegetables have probiotics and 37% believe they have prebiotics. Again, IFIC clarifies, probiotics are not often found in fruits and vegetables.

Other products that consumers turn to for both pre- and probiotics are breakfast cereals and oatmeal (23% and 35% respectively), nuts and seeds (27% and 34%), legumes (29% and 33%) and whole grains (25% and 33%), according to the survey.

Far fewer people seek probiotics and prebiotics from fermented foods. Only 19% of consumers seek probiotics from kimchi or sauerkraut, 18% from pickled foods and 11% from fermented soy products. Of these same products, 15%, 14% and 16% of consumers seek prebiotics.

This reflects a general lack of understanding about the connection between fermented foods and probiotics. The survey found about half of people didn’t’ know if all fermented foods contain probiotics, while 31% said they did and 18% disagreed.

Likewise, a significant portion of consumers (39%) didn’t know if the benefits of probiotics are specific to the strain of the bacteria, or believed they were unrelated (13%). The majority, 49%, strongly or somewhat agree that the benefits of probiotics are specific to the strain of bacteria.

Some food and beverage companies are trading on this confusion – claiming that their fermented product contains probiotics, but not listing the specific strains or verifying if the probiotics in the product deliver the benefits that many people associate with probiotics, according to experts recently gathered by FoodNavigator-USA for the webinar ‘Feeding the Gut Microbiome​.’

Why don’t more Americans seek pro- and prebiotics?

Confusion about which foods and beverages are sources for probiotics and prebiotics also discouraged many Americans who are familiar with them from actively seeking them out.

According to IFIC, 35% of Americans are familiar with probiotics but do not try to actively consume them. Likewise, 29% are familiar with prebiotics, but do not try to consume them. Of these, 19% said they don’t try to consume probiotics because the don’t know which food and beverages are sources for them.

Other reasons that consumers who are aware of probiotics do not try to consume them include having other more important priorities related to their dietary choices (29%), they perceive them as too expensive (23%) and they have tried them in the past and not noticed a health benefit (22%), according to IFIC’s survey.

Beyond pro- and prebiotics, IFIC’s gut health survey also takes a deep dive into consumer understanding of postbiotics and synbiotics, about which it found much lower levels of understanding. Download the survey​ to learn more.

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