Language Is Key To Marketing Digestive Health Products

Talking about the physiological details of gut health can make consumers squeamish and affect the successful marketing of digestive health products. Christine Nicolay explains how market research is revealing a better way to speak to consumers about prebiotics

Well-being' and 'wellness' are becoming key marketing concepts for foods, beverages and nutraceuticals. Already the terms are seen on magazine covers, in-flight mags, on TV and elsewhere. The terms have broad appeal—who doesn't want to experience well-being and wellness? In marketing terms, this terminology opens up a huge new market that includes nearly every adult. And there's marketing magic in the semantics: The meaning of well-being and wellness is almost entirely subjective. A recent Reuters report on well-being suggests the concept focuses on three core areas: physical health, mental health and beauty. That probably broadens the marketing possibilities all the more.

A proper diet is, of course, essential to well-being but eating healthfully is difficult for many people in Western nations. Much has been made of functional foods and their potential contributions to physical and mental health. Those functional foods aimed at digestive health find a comfortable fit with the well-being/wellness pitch because the advantages of having a healthy digestive system extend beyond the gut and contribute to overall well-being. A number of food manufacturers involved in producing foods for digestive health are now using the language of well-being or 'feeling good' to communicate the benefits of their products.

Recently in the UK, for example, Kellogg's ran a special promotion on packs of All-Bran and Bran Flakes cereals. Called the Kellogg's 'Feel Good Challenge,' consumers were encouraged to eat the cereal at breakfast each day for two weeks and to then assess how good they felt on a scale of one to five. The assessment criteria were general energy, concentration and overall mood levels. The objective of the challenge was to demonstrate that after eating high-fibre cereal every day for 14 days, consumers would notice a difference in how they felt.

Functional foods aimed at digestive health find a comfortable fit with the well-being/wellness marketing pitch
The claims made by Kellogg's are based on scientific research conducted by Professor Andrew Smith and his team at Cardiff University. This research on 139 human volunteers showed that eating a bowl of All-Bran or Bran Flakes every day for two weeks 'helped reduce fatigue by an average of 10 per cent, as well as improving mood and energy levels.'

In marketing its Actimel probiotic drink, Danone takes the concept of a well-being challenge one step further: If consumers of Actimel do not feel better after drinking a little bottle each day for 14 days, they can claim their money back.

The Squeamishness Factor
But the 'challenges' reveal a difficulty faced by marketers of digestive health products, as the human gut is not a subject people generally discuss or think about very often. Many people probably do not immediately associate digestive health with overall well-being. Indeed, when the digestive system is functioning optimally, most people would not make the link between it and how they feel in general. It is only when we experience discomfort in this area that the problems, and the impact on how we feel, is more evident. However, with prompting, people do recognise that if everything is working well on the inside, they feel good overall. It is this well-being/wellness connection with gut health that is proving effective in euphemising a touchy subject and successfully marketing digestive health products.

Prebiotics And The Less Off-putting Sell
As we have seen, digestive health is not just about fibre. Recently, particularly in Europe and Asia, awareness of 'friendly' bacteria has risen, and an increasing number of people are taking action to improve the condition of their digestive systems. The success of Yakult and Actimel has helped make consumers comfortable with the idea that they have good bacteria inside. Even so, some people can find this concept off-putting. An alternative is prebiotics. These are relatively new players in this arena, despite the fact that prebiotic substances such as inulin and oligofructose have been found in our staple diet for generations. Many scientific studies have shown that consuming even moderate quantities of prebiotics can be beneficial to digestive health.

Prebiotics pass through the stomach and small intestine intact. They ferment in the colon, stimulating the beneficial bifidobacteria, an action known as the prebiotic effect. Good intestinal health is achieved when the composition and activity of our microflora is in balance. With regular intake of inulin and oligofructose at levels of 5 to 8 grams each day, the bifidobacteria are stimulated and increase in number by as much as five to 10 times. The level of harmful organisms in the digestive tract, such as clostridia, is reduced. Prebiotics, therefore, merely stimulate and improve the health of already present good bacteria within the digestive system—an idea that consumers may find more acceptable.

How To Talk To Squeamish Consumers
Belgium-based ORAFTI Active Food Ingredients has been conducting consumer research to find how best to communicate the benefits of its prebiotic ingredients Raftiline and Raftilose. The company found that consumers are clear that the end benefit they expect from the ingredients is simply a sense of feeling better. Consumers anticipate that having a healthy digestive system will have a beneficial effect, just as incorporating fresh fruit and vegetables into the diet does. Consumers also want to find these ingredients in everyday, staple foods—easily available products that the family consumes as part of the diet; foods that taste good while also providing a health benefit.

The underlying message of feeling good through a healthy digestive system applies to all markets
ORAFTI also looked at what kind of language should be used to communicate the benefits and found that it was important to strike the right balance. Consumers do not want to hear too many intestinal details, nor, on the other hand, are they interested in bland, general claims that disappear among the thousands of messages they hear every day. The appropriate language will, to some extent, vary from country to country, but the underlying message of feeling good through maintaining a healthy digestive system applies to all markets.

Numerous scientific studies have looked into the contribution of prebiotic ingredients to digestive health and well-being. One study, by Dr José Saavedra, associate professor of paediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Johns Hopkins University, looked at the benefits of including oligofructose in the diet of young children.1 The randomised trial involved 123 toddlers who were attending daycare centres; each received regular cereal or cereal supplemented with oligofructose for three months. The occurrence of fever, vomiting and discomfort, as well as medical visits, daycare absenteeism and antibiotic prescriptions associated with illness, were significantly lower in the group taking cereal supplemented with oligofructose. The study revealed a range of specific benefits for conditions and events in the lives of toddlers, not just benefits for digestive health, but for overall well-being—and most likely for the well-being of parents as well!

Another study, by Professor John Cummings of the University of Dundee, involved a trial in which adult volunteers included Raftilose in their diets for four weeks.2 After this period, the subjects not only reported an increased sense of well-being but researchers looking at improved immune response in connection with travellers' diarrhea found that the ingredient could also help prevent this problem.

So what does the future hold for foods and beverages that promote digestive health? Expect ingredients such as prebiotics to figure strongly as consumer awareness of the importance of good digestive health increases. Despite all the findings of marketing with 'non-offensive' language, ask people to describe how they feel when their stomach is upset or when they have eaten badly and they can be very graphic in their descriptions. And how about when they are back to normal and their digestive system is working better? That's a good measure of well-being.

Christine Nicolay is sales and marketing services manager at ORAFTI Active Food Ingredients, based in Tienen, Belgium.


1. Saavedra, JM, Tschernia, A. Human studies with probiotics and prebiotics: clinical implications. Br J Nutr 2002;87(S2):241-6.

2. Cummings JH, Macfarlane, GT. Gastrointestinal effects of prebiotics. Br J Nutr 2002;87(S2):145-51.

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