Americans need more fiber in their diets, and they’re going to get it—that is, if food manufacturers have their way. According to market researcher Frost & Sullivan, the U.S. market for prebiotic—or soluble fiber—ingredients is forecast to double in the next five years to more than $220 million by 2016. But the factors that will fuel growth are still up for debate.
Right now, consumer interest in the category may have more to do with concerns about weight management than digestive health. For example, inulins—prebiotic additives generally derived from chicory root—often are used by food manufacturers as replacements for fat and sugar. Scan any yogurt or energy bar section at a grocery store, and you’ll see that the marketing on these product packages follows suit. Words like “low fat” or “no added sugar” are commonplace.
“Many of the protein and diet snack bars that we carry contain inulin, and they are popular, but not because of the prebiotic content,” said Lani Jacobs-Banner, assistant manager for the nutrition education department with Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage. At the western chain’s stores, customers can grab handouts describing the many benefits of prebiotics like inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides, including how they can help increase healthy bacteria present in the gut. But these facts aren’t selling points—yet. “Rarely do we have a customer who asks for a prebiotic-infused product,” Jacobs-Banner said. “Most commonly they are looking for a fiber-containing product or a diet product.”
The future of prebiotics
In the future, consumers’ concern for their digestive health may move prebiotic products off store shelves. “The standard American diet plays an unfortunate role in the prevalence of heart disease and digestive problems,” said Kerry Watson, certified nutrition consultant and manager of the product library for SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research company for the natural products industry. “It is widely known that regular dietary intake of fiber benefits these conditions.”
Non-prebiotic carbohydrates are broken down by the body in the small intestines and turned into fuel for the body. Prebiotic soluble fiber, however, passes through the small intestines and gets fermented in the colon where it stimulates the growth of probiotics, or "good bacteria," to aid digestion. The Dietary Reference Intake for fiber is 38 grams for males and 25 grams for females. Americans tend to get about half that.
Because the gut health benefits of prebiotics are somewhat difficult to, ahem, digest—thus, Natural Grocers’ multi-page handout on the topic including 19 scientific references—its relevance in that realm may suffer. “Consumers simply can’t put their finger on what prebiotic means and what it means to them,” said Steven Young, Ph.D., principal of consulting firm Steven Young Worldwide, and the North American technical advisor to FIBERSOL-2.
At Nature’s Green Grocer Market and Café in Peterborough, N.H., customers haven’t tuned into prebiotics enough to make merchandising a dedicated set of prebiotic products worthwhile. “We don’t carry any food-based prebiotic products that come in a package and are marketed as such, other than yogurt,” said Joel Patterson, store owner. “Most yogurts don’t indentify prebiotics as a selling point, though, if they contain them.”
Food manufacturers can legally make a health claim about soluble fiber and heart health, but other claims are “off the table for now,” according to Young. To stay within the scope of the law, some companies boast nutrient contents—“7g of fiber per serving”—or structure-function—“supports digestive health”—on product packaging. But “prebiotic really falls short of a clean, single stucture claim,” Young said.
As well as lawful product positioning, proper formulation of functional foods will be necessary to help buoy the prebiotic market. According to Young, prebiotics are effective as digestive aids only when consumed at the same time as probiotic cultures, which “feed” on prebiotics. “Since prebiotics are coupled to the success of probiotic-containing foods, products with the greatest opportunity are those that allow for the addition and survival of the probiotic cultures,” Young said.
Until recently, manufacturers have had an easier time formulating refrigerated yogurts and kefirs for this purpose, but some non-refrigerated products are beginning to come of age. “There is some growth in the non-refrigerated delivery of probiotics, but the addition, survival and consumption of the right combination of probiotics is critical as is the presence of any appropriate prebiotic ingredient,” Young said.
Craving control is another area of opportunity for manufacturers of prebiotic fiber products, according to Watson. “Food and supplement products that contain significant amounts of prebiotic fiber can promote a feeling of satiety without adding calories,” she said.
Still, today’s prebiotics are mostly along for the the ride in a diet or fiber product. “We know what prebiotics are,” said Eli Lesser Goldsmith, owner of Healthy Living Natural Foods Market in Burlington, Vt. “But it hasn’t hit Vermont yet.” In other words, his employees are keen on the benefits of prebiotics, but his customers have yet to catch on.
Time—and smart research, marketing and education initiatives by manufacturers and retailers—may bolster prebiotics’ multifunctional health buzz. “Remember, the probiotic story began nearly 30 years ago and is just now gaining traction,” said Young. “What is needed is a major manufacturer to pick up the mantle of prebiotics, leverage the success from probiotics and go from there.”
Some bigger natural products companies already seem to be tackling this mission. For example, a few Barbara’s Bakery cereals contain NutraFlora, a research-backed and patented prebiotic dervived from non-GMO beet or cane sugar, and the word “prebiotic” appears on the front-of-package. As well, boxes of Kashi U cereals include a three-sentence paragraph that explains the digestive health benefits of prebiotic chicory root fiber.
Prebiotic products to watch
Foods and beverages containing prebiotics are expected to grow faster than prebiotic supplements, according to Tejaswini Prabhu, research associate for Frost & Sullivan's Technical Insights Practice. “The growth of prebiotics in the field of health supplements is estimated to be lesser due to organoleptic issues and insufficient health claims,” Prabhu said, noting that prebiotic dairy and nondairy beverages are seeing the most growth.
According to Watson, booming prebiotic categories also include energy bars, refrigerated juices, cookies and snack bars. “I think that these categories are targets for prebiotic-containing products because they are grab-and-go,” Waston said. “Healthy snack and quick-fuel types of products that are filling but not calorie heavy are appealing to a wide variety of consumers.”
Down the road, food products containing natural prebiotic characteristics are likely to become more popular, according to Prabhu. “The ‘natural’ trend is prevalent in other food ingredients such as preservatives and health ingredients,” Prabhu said. “Natural foods such as honey and certain regional fruits such as baobab have prebiotic characteristics. Researchers are working on enhancing the prebiotic properties of these foods.”
For examples of prebiotic products to consider and how companies position them, browse our gallery of "10 prebiotic prebiotic soluble fiber products to stock."