Natural Products Expo West

Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Innovations meet rapidly rising demand for prebiotics, probiotics and gut health+

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/ piotr_malczyk
Source: Getty/ piotr_malczyk

Related tags Probiotics prebiotics Gut health women's health Expo west

At Natural Products Expo West this year, walking down an aisle without seeing a callout for prebiotics or probiotics was nearly impossible as more players race to meet consumer demand for each, which research from Coefficient Capital shows is climbing fast.

A survey of more than 3,000 US consumers by the investment group done in concert with The New Consumer and Instacart revealed 55% of Americans are aware of probiotics and of those 48% are extremely or very interested in consuming them. In addition, Instacart shoppers searching for “probiotic” shot up 30% in 2022 compared to 2021.

Awareness of prebiotics isn’t quite as far along with only 14% of surveyed Americans saying they were aware of prebiotic soda, for example, but interest among those in the know was almost as high as for probiotics with 45% reporting they were extremely or very interested in consuming prebiotic sodas.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast​, companies at Natural Products Expo West either featuring pre- and probiotics in their products or supplying them share what is driving consumer interest in both, how they are rising to meet demand and some of the opportunities and challenges that associated with each.

[Editor’s Note: Never miss an episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast – subscribe​ today.]

Pre- and probiotics have come a long way, but still barely scratched the surface

Consumer interest in pre- and pro-biotics have come a long way in the past five years thanks in large part to rising awareness about the importance of gut health, which Lauretta Katsriku, global platform leader for nutrition, health and wellness at Ingredion predicts will open the flood gates for many more benefits and product innovation.

“We’ve seen there’s a lot of interest in products that have some claims of benefits for digestive health,”​ to which pre- and probiotics cater, but gut health is the gateway to so many more benefits, as research uncovers the connection between the gut-brain axis, mental health, immunity and more, Katsriku said.

To meet this demand, manufacturers must first decide which ingredients and platforms are best for the benefits they want to deliver and the consumer they are targeting, she said.

“Probiotics are very mainstream. A lot of people really have a good view of them, a very god understanding. … Prebiotics also are gaining traction and I think they are getting ga lot more press as compared to probiotics now,”​ she said.

“When it comes to applications or usage of prebiotics or probiotics, they also very. Prebiotics typically tend to be more stable in most products and food applications,”​ whereas probiotics can be a bit more finicky, she said.

When deciding what type of prebiotic or strain of probiotic to use, she encourages companies to consider the entire delivery system, including processing and other ingredients, and to work closely with suppliers to ensure the finished product will deliver on their promises.

BelliWelli seeks to destigmatize digestive health, targets women

One company at Expo West rising to meet consumer demand for gut health – but with a new-to-market twist – is BelliWelli. CEO Katie Wilson explains the unabashedly sparkly, pink and probiotic packed snack brand is on a mission to destigmatize digestive health and fill a gap in the $280b functional food market by catering specifically to women.

“I started the company because I had gut trouble and in talking about my own gut troubles and problems, I started to realize … that [women] were a really underrepresented group in the grocery store. No one was talking to this group of women, which turns out is 80% of women in the store,”​ she said.

She added that she also was turned off by existing products that made bathroom jokes and didn’t feel connected with more clinically positioned options. And so she charted her own path: a sparkly, pink brand that was straightforward about challenges and offered solutions to women.

Wilson acknowledges the cultural connection between the color pink and women can be polarizing, but for BelliWelli she says leaning into the color works because it isn’t about reinforcing a worn out trope, rather it is an authentic reflection of her personality as a founder and it stands out from other marketing strategies in the space.

“The other thing that I think we've really tried to crack and continue to try to crack is walking that line … between too medicinal and naughty jokes. Again, it's very tempting this space to lean to lean into one or the other. And we, as a consumer, I just realized there was this middle ground missing right, which is women who can relate and wanted to talk about it and normalize it doesn't mean we all want to like compare like bathroom stories, right but one options that are safe for us and we want to feel seen and heard,”​ she said.

For Wilson, what is in BelliWelli snacks is just as important as what isn’t, because as she explains probiotics offer powerful benefits, but they alone are not a panacea for digestive issues.

BelliWelli products are low-FODMAP, gluten-free, vegan, have no sugar alcohols, which Wilson says can damage the gut, and contain probiotics for added support.

“Probiotics can’t stand alone and fix your gut on their own. You’ve got to remove some of those irritants. So we aim to do both,”​ she said.

As BelliWelli navigates conversations about digestive issues, Wilson said the company is careful to not overpromise or underdeliver.

“When you make a probiotic claim, of course you have to test every batch to ensure survivability exists. So we do all of that”​ and are careful to say while each bar has 500 million CFU of probiotics, it is all the same strain and so doesn’t replace your probiotic supplement, she said.

BelliWelli is also careful not to make promises that its snacks will heal consumers guts – but simply that they won’t trigger a stomach ache or make people feel worse.

Karma Probiotic Water taps packaging advancements for healthy dose delivery

Ensuring a sufficient, viable dose of probiotics is also a core value of Karma Water, which offers a trio of waters, including Karma Probiotic Water.

At Expo West, Kelley Bridenbaugh, a marketing manager for the 12-year-old business, explains Karma Probiotic Water stands out from other probiotic-packed beverages because it doesn’t need to be refrigerated thanks to patented technology and careful strain selection.

“What sets us apart for all three products is we have a special patented push-cap technology. … All the vitamins and probiotics are stored in the cap until seconds before you’re ready to drink it,”​ Bridenbaugh said. “What you do is you peel it and then you push it to infuse the water when you’re ready to drink it.”

This technology allows consumers to take the water on the go in a way that more traditional probiotic beverages, such as dairy based options, cannot because they need to be temperature controlled. It also means that consumers can buy the beverages in bulk with confidence they won’t go bad or lose efficacy because the shelf life is 18 months.

To make drinking Karma Water even easier for the consumer, the company is launching a subscription service that will send a reusable water bottle and patented caps directly to consumers, allowing them to mix and match flavors and health benefits, Bridenbaugh added.

Beyond the added grab-and-go convenience Karam Water’s patented packaging brings to the probiotic beverage space, the company is making it even easier for consumers to drink their probiotics by launching a new direct-to-consumer subscription service, which is possible because of its unique packaging.

Other products at the show blended probiotics and prebiotics or incorporated them in other formats, including a plethora of sparkling beverages, pouched ready-to-eat smoothies, snack bites and more – underscoring the diversity and potential of these star ingredients in the better-for-you space going forward.

Given negotiations around the proposed action levels and logistics about meeting them remain up in the air, FMI urges FDA to provide a two-year phase in period that would allow companies to alter supplies if necessary and update safety protocols to comply. 

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