Gut health is important. If the offerings at Natural Products Expo West in March 2017 are any indication, the number of digestive health products will continue to rise.
The market is ready. Not only is the market potential for “digestive conditions" massive (digestive conditions affect 60 to 70 million people each year, according to the National Digestive Diseases Clearinghouse), there is a growing market for “digestive consistency."
Consumers increasingly understand the connection between digestive health and overall wellness, and they are willing to invest in supplements and functional foods making digestive health claims, even when not trying to treat a “problem."
The past: Colon cancer, whole grains and staying regular
Traditionally, products targeting digestive health were focused on the prevention of gas and bloating. Some products were marketed toward specific conditions such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), indigestion, diarrhea and constipation. Fiber has always been in the “natural product scene." For the past 20 years, whole grains, such oatmeal, have been touted for their health benefits by marketers and doctors for lowering cardiovascular disease (CVD), reducing the risk of colon cancer and increasing regularity.
While these products still exist and have a healthy market share, the focus on digestive health is increasingly preventive with an overall focus on “gut health."
The present: Probiotics have taken center stage
Probiotics often take center stage in the conversation about preventative gut health and with good reason. They have skyrocketed in terms of awareness, claims, studies and consumer interest over the past couple of years. Even though the benefits of probiotics extend beyond the realm of digestive health, claim-specific strains focused on digestive health such as IBS are still the most present, with future strains and nondigestive claims to come in rapid fashion.
Probiotics are obviously a topic unto themselves, and their presence in the natural products, supplement and digestive markets will continue to expand, but there are a few other areas of digestive health that are worth exploring.
The future of digestive health: Prebiotics & enzymes
Often the forgotten stepchild of probiotics that has been pushed in the background, prebiotics are finally ready for their close-up. Prebiotics are “food" for beneficial bacteria in the gut, and they help probiotics thrive. They are a quite beneficial and necessary precursor to the success of prebiotics in the gut. The definition of prebiotic is that it is a “selectively fermented ingredient that allows for specific changes, both in the composition and/or activity of the gastrointestinal microflora that confers benefits upon host well-being and health," according to Nutrients Medical Journal. Most prebiotics are carbohydrate compounds.
Why is this science important? Well for one, it is important for consumers to understand why both prebiotics and probiotics work together for maximum benefit. It is also important because some, but not all, prebiotics are fibers. Consumers are aware of the benefits of fiber, long a market staple before probiotics entered the scene, but they often do not make the connection.
Fiber is credited with colon health and regularity, but prebiotics are not given the credit for being a key part of digestive health picture. To further complicate things, there are some prebiotics are also fibers, but not all fibers are prebiotics.
A dietary fiber is carbohydrate polymers of three or more monomeric units that resist digestion (this of it as a set of three train cars linked together). When they can be classified as a prebiotic, they are often the food/energy source for gut microbes, and can heavily impact how effective probiotics are
No area of future digestive health would be complete without a mention of enzymes. While not given as much attention probiotics or prebiotics, digestive enzymes still deserve a digestive health mention.
When individuals are under stress, or when their food source are overall processed, there can be a lack of digestive enzymes in their intestinal system. It is these enzymes that help to break down milk sugars such as lactose or proteins such as gluten. If an individual is lacking in enzymes or consuming a diet that does not provide sufficient enzymes, nutrient absorption is low. Not only will their digestion suffer, their overall health and immunity will be in decline due to lack of nourishment.
Stressful lifestyles, eating on the go, or more processed food can also cause this–even without a systemic problem. More likely focused on supplements than functional foods (for now), enzymes are an additional piece of the digestive health story we will be talking about in the future.
Sunita Kumar is a contributing writer and the founder of Nourish Nutrition Inc. After spending more than a decade at leading consumer brands and digital agencies launching products, Kumar now focuses her attention to being a scientist and entrepreneur—using her background in product formulation, supply chain and health-focused retail, to provide a unique perspective on the world of natural products.