FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrates that has been linked to digestive issues, including irritable bowel syndrome. A diet in low in FODMAPs is said to ease symptoms and there are signs of a market taking root in Australia, parts of Europe and North America. In the main, it is smaller firms that are marketing low-FODMAP foods but some of the major names in the industry, including Nordic business Fazer Group and, notably Nestle, are showing interest and have recently launched products. Simon Creasey looks at developments so far and weighs up the prospects for the fledgling category.

It is estimated around 10-15% of the global population suffers from some form of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and, while gluten is often targeted as the cause of this digestive discomfort and subsequently removed from the diet of sufferers, it is not always the offending ingredient. An additional group of ingredients could in fact be responsible – fermentable sugars, also known as FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols).

An example of a disaccharide is lactose, while fructose is a monosaccharide, so it is not difficult to think of foods that could cause problems for those with digestive conditions like IBS. It has clinically been proven removing FODMAPs from the diet of people suffering from functional gut disorders can significantly improve symptoms.

There are, so far, essentially two ways people are using the diet. Some are avoiding all of the problematic foods and replacing them with food that’s easier to digest and therefore following the low-FODMAP diet for life, or for as long as they can maintain it. Others are eliminating all of the problematic food items containing the FODMAPs for a set period – usually six weeks – and then slowly reintroducing these items to work out which sugar (it can be one sugar or a combination of different sugars) is the issue.

Many food experts believe the low-FODMAP food and drink category, which is still in its infancy, could one day become as big as gluten-free. 

So what manufacturers are looking to tap into – and build – demand for low-FODMAP foods? And what are the main obstacles that stand in the way of the category’s future growth?

The low-FODMAP diet, which has only recently started to gain traction in the mass market, originated in Australia back in 1999 and was developed by a team at Monash University in Melbourne. Ewa Hudson, head of health and wellness research at Euromonitor International, says one of the reasons adoption rates of the low-FODMAP diet to date have been fairly slow is the regime is much more complicated for individuals to get their head around than more straightforward gluten-free and lactose-free diets. 

“The list [of low-FODMAP food] is diverse and includes the likes of cow’s milk, wheat pasta, apples, legumes/pulses and even onion, among many others,. These foods would need to be swapped for milk alternatives, gluten-free pasta, carrots, tofu and oranges, for example,” says Hudson. “However, the main benefit of the low-FODMAP diet is that the individual does not have to follow a strict gluten- or lactose-free diet; instead, foods are ranked on the amount of FODMAPs they contain. Therefore, the odd use of a food that contains some FODMAPs is permitted.”

To date, the diet has proven incredibly effective at treating people who suffer from IBS, UK-registered dietician Laura Tilt claims. “Three in four people get results when using the low-FODMAP diet and as a result, for the first time people are starting to think this is something that actually works if it’s done properly.”

Given its origins, it is hardly surprising the biggest market for low-FODMAP food and drink products at the moment is Australia. However, Norway, the UK, France, Canada, the US and New Zealand are starting to catch up rapidly. Many of the low-FODMAP products available in these territories originate from Australia and are sold under the ‘FODMAP Friendly’ certification trademark, which verifies FODMAP levels in packaged food.

“Currently, we have certified products available around the world, including meal kits, sauces, breads, cereals, snack foods, gourmet deli goods, beverages, baking products and more,” explains Tim Mottin, director and co-founder at FODMAP Friendly. “Our range of certified foods is constantly expanding, as more and more people discover FODMAPs.”

Mottin adds there are approximately 100 certified products on the market with “many more” that have gone through or are currently going through the testing process and are about to be launched.

One company with products acertified under the scheme is Australian firm FODMAPPED Foods, which launched what it claims is the world’s first dedicated FODMAP-friendly food range in March 2014. FODMAPPED director Samantha O’Brien says the market for FODMAP-labelled foods is still fairly nascent but points to one major name in the industry that has shown interest in the category. “It is an emerging food trend and often you find small to medium niche manufacturers are first to market with food solutions,” says O’Brien. “However, I believe Nestle has jumped on this quite early and will be launching a number of products later this year.”

Today, in the US, Nestle launched ProNourish, a low-FODMAP drink it says can help people with “digestive sensitivities”. The drinks are on sale at grocery stores and pharmacies in the US.

Barbara McCartney, regional business head for Nestle’s Health Science consumer care arm in North America, says: “Often times, people with digestive sensitivities avoid all foods and food categories that give them discomfort, or even fear of discomfort, which can unintentionally impact their nutritional intake. With our new ProNourish low-FODMAP nutritional drink, we are providing a trusted source of nutrition that can be enjoyed, knowing that it has been fully tested and certified to be low in FODMAPs by Monash University.”

Speaking to just-food, a spokesperson for Nestle’s Health Science division explained why the company had made the US the first market for the beverage. “There are over 80 million consumers in the US who are living with persistent digestive sensitivities. Two-thirds of consumers with digestive sensitivities exclude certain foods that they feel may trigger issues,” the spokesperson said. “Our plan is to begin in the US and evaluate roll-out into other markets in the future.”

Last month, Finland-based food company Fazer Group launched a low-FODMAP rye bread in its domestic market, targeting consumers with “sensitive stomachs”. A spokesperson for Fazer Group said the bread was being stocked at “all retailers” in Finland and added: “We know that stomach problems are one of the main reasons for people to avoid bread. At the same time, rye bread is a part of Finnish diet, as well as very popular traditional product and flavour, even a symbol for Finnishness. Rye bread is a source of a FODMAP component. We wanted to solve this problem and give all people a possibility to enjoy tasty rye bread.”

Mottin confirms many large food manufacturers are going through the testing process and he believes “the rise of these products will ultimately overtake the growth seen in gluten-free products”. It is a view shared by Tilt who thinks the larger food groups will get in on the act sooner rather than later. “It’s a huge opportunity for food manufacturers,” says Tilt. “When you consider that 15-20% of the UK population is affected by IBS to some extent it’s only a matter of time before you start to see them launch FODMAP-labelled products.”

Outside Australia, the UK has led the pack in terms of wider adoption of the FODMAP diet thanks largely to the work that researchers at King’s College London have been doing with their counterparts at Monash University but the country’s food manufacturers have yet to react significantly, according to Hamish Renton, managing director at food and drink consultants HRA. “However, once one of the big dominos goes down – either when a big retailer or a big FMCG player picks this up – then you’re in business and it will go boom,” says Renton. “I’d suggest that we are still around three to four years away from reaching the tipping point on FODMAP in the UK.”

There are a number of potential obstacles that will need to be overcome before that tipping point is reached not just in the UK, but around the rest of the world. As Euromonitor’s Hudson suggests, one of the largest of these hurdles surrounds the lack of consumer understanding around what a FODMAP is and it is a view shared by her counterparts at Mintel. “The FODMAP diet is very complicated to follow, and consumer awareness of it is likely to be very limited,” says Emma Schofield, global food science analyst at Mintel. “It may cause confusion, as FODMAPs are fibres, which health officials promote as good for consumers, and an ingredient that we should be consuming more of.”

In April, Nestle launched a website to give consumers information about FODMAPs. The company also says the site is targeted at healthcare professionals “looking to build knowledge and practice tools”, a further sign, perhaps, of how it is very early days for the diet and therefore for a market to take root.

However, some already in the market already believe the future growth of the FODMAP diet could be significant. 

“FODMAPs will be massive; you just have to look at the numbers and facts,” says Mottin. “It is not a fad diet – it is scientifically and clinically proven to relieve IBS type symptoms. If you look at the size of the gluten-free market, which primarily affects one in 120 people worldwide, then consider that IBS-type symptoms affect one in seven people. This market will be at least 15 times larger than the gluten-free market.”

It’s not quite there yet, but it seems like it is only a matter of time before retailers will start to create dedicated FODMAP sections in-store.

Additional reporting from Dean Best.