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Educating the public about probiotics—the valuable role retailers play

probiotics for immune health
To help educate retailers on probiotics, the Council for Responsible Nutrition will be launching a retailer education campaign this fall. Here's why.

Popular with consumers, probiotics are unique ingredients that continue to generate innovative product development and drive new research demonstrating both the increased benefits and diversity of this category. Unlike other dietary supplement ingredients, probiotics are live organisms. And similar to other live organisms, the more we study, the more we learn how complex and diverse these organisms really are. Given the growing body of research in this category, coupled with consumer popularity, it is even more important now for retailers to be better educated on the intricacies of probiotic products.

To help educate retailers on probiotics, the Council for Responsible Nutrition will be launching a retailer education campaign later this fall. Retailers, specifically retailer buyers serve as gatekeepers for their stores, making decisions to benefit their business, keep up with consumer demand, and provide their customers with safe, high quality and beneficial products. Buyers can also help to ensure that the relevant contacts in their stores obtain the information they need about probiotic products, including retail dietitians, pharmacists and sales associates. Ultimately, educating retailer buyers will help consumers to be more educated in this complex space.

The forthcoming initiative will help to educate buyers on the intricacies of probiotic products, including storage and handling best practices, labeling probiotic quantity, potential label changes and claims. The campaign will also seek to provide retailer buyers with resources needed to communicate with the public about the benefits of probiotics beyond gut health, along with usage and market statistics to better understand the probiotics consumer.

While shopping for probiotics, consumers may find these products in a variety of delivery formats throughout different areas of their preferred retailer. Probiotics may be packaged in a traditional capsule format on a shelf in the supplement aisle, some ingredients may be found in a fortified food product, and others can be located in the refrigerated section. This variation can be attributed to different strains of probiotics, formulation matrices and dosage forms that necessitate different storage conditions. As it is so critical to ensure that probiotics remain viable throughout their product lifecycle, it is important that retailers are provided with storage and handling instructions that take into account the formulation and packaging for specific products.

Retailers also need to be aware of the unique labeling needs of probiotics to support consumers. When selecting products containing probiotics, consumers need to know the number of live microorganisms in the product, rather than their weight. CRN has advocated for FDA to accept colony forming units (CFUs) as the unit of measure for probiotics over the past several years. CFUs are currently the scientifically accepted unit of measure for live microorganisms and give consumers relevant and useful information when making purchasing decisions.

This group should also be aware that just this year, an article published in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, announced a proposed taxonomy change for the genus Lactobacillus. The Lactobacillus species has grown to include over 250 species, and recent scientific advances in genetic testing have demonstrated that these bacteria have been misclassified. The article’s authors proposed that the genus Lactobacillus be reclassified into 25 genera to better group bacteria serving similar functions in the same classification and help improve overall accuracy. While the new classification system does pose new challenges for the industry in ensuring all levels of the supply chain are up to date on label changes, GMPs and product claims, scientific advances like this one, along with other emerging research on probiotics will help the industry to evolve and best serve consumers.

Science continues to demonstrate that the category of probiotics encompasses a range of organisms and products that offer different health benefits. As the body of scientific research evolves, consumers are reporting to take probiotics for a growing number of reasons. Research demonstrates how certain probiotics can support gut health, but emerging science also supports the potential benefit of probiotics for immune function, brain health and bone health. According to CRN’s 2020 survey on dietary supplements, 57% of supplement users who take probiotics, take these ingredients for GI support and general health. Closely following, 51% of probiotic users do so to support immune health. Probiotic users are also taking these ingredients for specific health conditions (16%); skin health (15%); and emotional well-being (15%).

To educate the public on probiotics, it is smart to start with the retailers. This unique category presents consumers with so many considerations when it comes to delivery preference, storage requirements, understanding what’s on the label, and usage benefits. Educating retailers can help consumers to better navigate the complex probiotics category.

Andrea Wong, PhD, is the senior vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition.

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