The term ‘good bacteria’ has been around for years, but many consumers remain unconvinced that probiotics merit their premium price-tag. However, writes Catherine Sleep, recent confirmation from leading food microbiologists has lent credence to the marketing claims.

Pioneering Japanese probiotic Yakult may have been developed in the 1930s, but it would be many years before a critical mass of consumers were taking their gut flora seriously; even today, a degree of scepticism remains. More than two million Britons regularly buy drinks, yoghurts and capsules containing probiotics, in a market worth an estimated GBP135m (US$256m) a year. This sounds impressive until you realise this leaves 58m British consumers who have yet to be converted.

New findings from a group of microbiologists led by Professor Glenn Gibson of the University of Reading may ease the passage of premium-priced probiotics, however, particularly among older consumers. The group’s research shows that 90% of the bacteria in the gut of a newborn baby are ‘friendly’ microbes, but this falls to around 10% to 15% in the average adult. After the age of 60 to 65, levels of friendly bacteria nosedive 1,000-fold.

Consequently, Gibson has called for wider uptake of probiotics, particularly among elderly people. He argues that it is no coincidence that in the worst recorded case of food poisoning by the stomach bug E.coli 0157, the 1996 outbreak in Lanarkshire, Scotland, all 21 victims who died were elderly.

This notwithstanding, the demographic group standing to benefit most from probiotic products is arguably the least likely to buy them. It can be tough to convince older consumers with long-established dietary habits of the merits of products they perceive as new-fangled, while many elderly people have less disposable income to spend on high-ticket grocery items.

A further hindrance to the acceptance of probiotics is their ambiguous overall nutritional profile. As the new just-food report Global market review of functional foods – forecasts to 2012 explains, four leading varieties of ‘friendly bacteria’ drinks bought from UK supermarkets were recently found to exceed the Food Standard Agency’s (FSA) benchmark for high sugar content. This came as a shock to customers who believed they were making a healthy choice, and doubtless acted as a deterrent to some prospective customers.

Nevertheless, as scientists and health authorities continue to give their backing, manufacturers who develop probiotic products that are low in sugar and fat, and who provide clear and convincing consumer information, are likely to do well.

If the UK and Europe continue to follow the pattern established in Japan, the world’s most advanced market for functional foods, a raft of innovative products containing synbiotics will appear. Synbiotics are forecast to play an important role in functional food because probiotics, without prebiotics, do not survive well in the digestive system. Some synbiotic combinations are already available on the market, but more are anticipated as manufacturers latch on to the evolution of consumer knowledge in this specific area.

Consumer education is vital if the category is to achieve its potential. People may be getting to grips with the idea of ‘good bacteria’ but the nuances remain unclear. The table below outlines the basic concepts, but this information is generally not available to shoppers choosing a product at the supermarket chiller cabinet.

The marketing of functional foods is complex, as scientific concepts need to be broken down in an easily digestible manner. While the term ‘good bacteria’ is easy to grasp, it is also so vague that it can be abused. Some manufacturers have been accused of overselling their products, and it is telling that Professor Gibson’s research group called for tighter rules on labelling, so that consumers can check they are buying products with the appropriate bacteria.

His group found that about half of the 50 products marketed as probiotics in the UK contained inadequate bacteria levels to be effective, suggesting that this is one product category where consumers may find it worth sticking to leading brands and supermarket own-labels, and shunning dubious products sold exclusively on the internet or through health food shops.

Get more information on the new just-food report Global market review of functional foods – forecasts to 2012