Celeste Sepessy, Celeste Sepessy

September 20, 2012

6 Min Read
Survival of the Strains

Though probiotic bacteria was discovered in the early 20th century, it took nearly 100 years for the probiotic industry to come alive.

Greek for "giving life," probiotics have quickly become one of the natural products industry's hottest markets. With skyrocketing sales, increasing consumer education, technological advances and product innovation, the nascent probiotics business is living a mainstream success story.

Probiotics companies across the globe are experiencing record sales numbers, said Mike Bush, vice president of business development, Ganeden Biotech. "We've had over 100-percent growth each year since 2008, without any let up whatsoever."

And Ganeden isn't the only company to jumpstart a slowing economy. "We've witnessed growth in all aspects of our business, from bulk powder sales to fully finished products, that actually outpaces the strong probiotics market figures reported by industry analysts," said Tim Gamble, president, Nutraceutix.

 In the past two years, probiotics sales have risen an astonishing 79 percent, from US$1.25 billion in July 2010 to US$2.25 billion in July 2012, according to SPINS.

And Missy Lowery, Capsugel marketing manager, added, "Sales are far from saturation." Euromonitor International expects global sales for the entire probiotic category to exceed US$42 billion by 2016a 50-percent increase from US$28 billion in 2011.

But to get there, manufacturers must first tackle challenges unique to the probiotics marketstrict government regulations, an inherently unstable product and consumer skepticism.

Growing the Colony

Manufacturers agree: The industry has Dannon to thank for making probiotics mainstream. Activia's launch in 2006 introduced many consumers to the term "probiotics." In fact, consumer recognition jumped from 9 percent in 2002 to 60 percent in 2009, according to the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI)largely due to Activia's large-scale launch.

The probiotics market's quick evolution is due largely to an increased consumer demand for healthier, natural options in the supplement, and food and beverage sector.

In Mintel's December 2011 Yogurt and Yogurt Drinks report, 70 percent of respondents said they consumed yogurt for digestive health, compared to 43 percent in 2010. And probiotics weigh heavily here59 percent of consumers reported it was important that their yogurt was high in probiotics.

Lars Bredmose, marketing director, Chr. Hansen, said consumers today want to "live healthier and be more self-curing." This mindset has led them to taking a proactive approach to their well-being, and probiotics can deliver preventive medicine in a natural format. "Gradually, more consumers have been educated about the goodness of probiotics, and they're starting to realize the benefits."

But for many, the benefits are sometimes confusing. Awareness, after all, doesn't always translate into education.

Bush said the public often equates probiotics to gut health, a sentiment shared by Mike Smith, Specialty Enzymes and Biotechnologies' vice president. "Given the limited scope of Dannon's commercials, the typical consumer believes probiotics exist to make you regular," Smith said. Dannon even developed the strain "Bifidus Regularis," which Smith called "good marketing, but not very informative."

Similarly, manufacturers had to tackle the negative connotation behind the word "microbe," according to Reza Kamarei, vice president, science and technology, Sabinsa Corp. "Although consumers have been used to the benefits of yogurt containing live microorganism as a healthy food, the term 'microbe' is infamously associated with spoilage and disease," Kamarei said. "One way to get around this challenge was introduction of the term 'good microbe' or 'good bacteria' to the public."

Kamarei said this concept is similar to the positioning of bad versus good cholesterol, and it helped shift a negative perception into a positive acceptance of probiotics.

In the end, Kamarei noted customer skepticism is both natural and beneficial. "It obliges suppliers and manufacturers to provide convincing scientific arguments and clinical results to substantiate the health benefits of their probiotic," he said.

More than Just Gut Health

Thanks to widely available products such as Activia, many consumers simply associate probiotics with gut health. And there's good reason: Research continually proves the probiotics' benefits in digestive health. These applications focus on normalizing intestinal flora in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, providing relief for conditions such as constipation, lactose intolerance symptoms, dysbiosis, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

"But beyond digestion, consumers are starting to understand the general wellness benefits, which primarily involve immune health," Bush said. "There's more to a probiotic than gut health."

And the probiotics industry is working hard to educate consumers about the numerous other health benefitsparticularly through emerging research. Recent developments have pointed to clinical effectiveness in applications including urinary tract infections, women's health, oral health, atopic dermatitis and stress.

A 2011 review of 10 studies indicated probiotics could be beneficial in preventing upper respiratory tract infections (Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(9):CD006895). The review, with more than 3,400 subjects, found taking probiotics helped reduce the number of infections by 12 percent.

Smith noted the important relationship between immune function and probiotics: "Nearly 80 percent of immunologically active cells are in the intestinal tract." Probiotics increase microbial populations, consequently improving intestinal barrier function and stimulating immune health, he said.

In April, researchers from the University of Washington explored the role of probiotics in women's health when they studied recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs). The double blind, placebo-controlled study found Lactobacillus crispatus supplements effective at reducing UTIs; 15 percent of women who received probiotics experienced recurrent UTIs versus 27 percent of the placebo group (Clin Infect Dis. 2011;DOI: 10.1093).

Though probiotics' oral health benefits are still being investigated, researchers from University of Barcelona, Spain, focused on identifying strains that can help fight gingivitis, cavities and bad breath, noting "most of the strains seem to be resistant to oral conditions" (Arch Oral Biol. 2012;57(5):539-49). Similarly, two studies recently tout three strains from the Oragenics' food ingredient ProBiora3 as safe and beneficial for improving oral health (Int J Toxicol. 2009;28:357-67) (J App Microbiol. 2009;107:682-90).

"Clearly the relationship between intestinal microorganisms and human health is profound," Smith said. As scientific institutions and companies conduct more research, these benefits will lead to further health claims for probiotics manufacturers.

But Gamble offers a caveat: Companies need to support their claims, which means properly conducting and reporting the research. "If there is one are where researchers can do a better job, it is in recognizing what makes a good probiotic supplement, both in research and in the marketplace," he said.

"Good probiotic supplements," he explained, should exhibit better shelf life and offer a consistent release of live organisms supporting dose consistency and compliance. These forms must be the staple of credible research, he said. As a result, the end commercial product will replicate the form, potency and function of those studied. "This approach to researching and putting products on store shelves that do not break the 'chain of science' will lead to an increased likelihood of supportable and marketable claims for probiotic supplements," Gamble said.

Attend the SupplySide West Probiotics Workshop on Friday, Nov. 7, 2012 from 8:30 to 11:30am to learn more about the future of the market with speakers  Ulrich Adam, director, Hill+Knowlton Strategies; and Ivan Wasserman, partner, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP.

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