Consumers are increasingly paying attention to their digestive health, with more than two-thirds of consumers in Europe saying digestive health is very important to them.

As understanding of digestive health grows, consumers are now recognising the wider benefits a healthy gut can have on their overall state of feeling good. This rising focus on the broader, positive health effects that inner well-being can deliver presents an opportunity for manufacturers to innovate and capitalise on the trend.

Product manager of functional fibres at BENEO Katrien Lambeens discusses the role that digestive health plays in inner well-being and looks at the functional ingredients that can help manufacturers deliver ‘feel good’ foods.

Go with your gut

We often use the phrase ‘gut feeling’ in colloquial terms to refer to our personal instinct or intuition that comes from within. While in the past, the origin or meaning of this saying may have been given little consideration by many, today, more consumers are taking an interest in the intrinsic link between their gut and their overall health.

In particular, they are beginning to understand that a balanced microbiome can positively affect the entire body, with research showing that 63% of consumers in Europe recognise that digestive health plays a very important role in their physical health and 57% see its connection to their mood. But, how exactly does the digestive system contribute to our inner well-being?

Dietary fibres are not digested and reach the large intestine intact. However, there are fibres that can be fermented by bacteria. This fermentation leads to the production of short-chain fatty acids, other metabolites and some vitamins. A limited number of these fermentable fibres, so-called prebiotics, specifically nourish the beneficial bacteria (Bifidobacterium and Lactobacilli) that are naturally present in the intestinal tract, ensuring their optimal development.

Supporting the growth of these beneficial bacteria contributes to balanced and healthy gut microbiota. Science demonstrates that short-chain fatty acids, achieved through this prebiotic fermentation, can reach the brain and other organs directly through the blood, or indirectly via the stimulation of immune cells, the hormonal or nervous system and the release of messenger substances. As a result, the gut microbiota can influence digestive health, overall health and an individual’s inner well-being.

Prebiotics – tried, tested and proven

Inulin and oligofructose are the only plant-based prebiotics available on the market and make up two out of only three existing scientifically proven prebiotics. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) gives clear guidance to manufacturers of functional ingredients about the definition and benefits of prebiotics.

On top of this, they indicate which fibres have enough science to demonstrate their prebiotic properties, which should be respected, especially at a time when consumers are becoming increasingly aware of their positive effects on health. There is an ever-growing body of research and high-quality scientific studies (in excess of 150) confirming the health benefits of prebiotic fibres which shouldn’t be ignored.

Prebiotic chicory root fibres, inulin and oligofructose contribute to better digestive health and inner well-being by:

  1. Promoting the growth of beneficial microbiota (Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli)
  2. Improving bowel regularity
  3. Resulting in an improved quality of life

One of the many supporting studies, a study by Micka et al.published in 2017, showed that BENEO’s prebiotic chicory root fibre, Orafti® Inulin, has specific effects on digestive health and quality of life. Improved bowel regularity was achieved with significantly increased stool frequency per week within the normal range versus the control. At the same time, a validated quality-of-life questionnaire demonstrated that satisfaction ratings were better with inulin in comparison to the control.

In addition, the Vandeputte et al study further confirmed that the intake of Oraft® Inulin induces selective changes in the gut’s microbiota composition that can be directly linked to improved regularity and well-being for the first time. For the study, the researchers used a highly sophisticated technology known as ‘next-generation sequencing’ to examine the impact of inulin fermentation. This state-of-the-art method allowed the entire human colonic bacterial ecosystem to be assessed.

The results showed that inulin intake selectively changed three bacterial genera: Bifidobacterium, Anaerostipes and Bilophila. It significantly increased the relative abundance of Bifidobacterium and Anaerostipes, both known as ‘good’ bacteria, supporting a health microbiota. The selectivity of Orafti® Inulin was further demonstrated through considerably decreased levels of Bilophila, a potentially harmful genus related to increased gas production. This decrease upon inulin consumption was linked with both softer stools and improved quality of life ratings.

Using this new methodology, the selective modulation of the gut microbiota by chicory root fibre was proven. The link shown for the first time between the change in bacterial abundance upon prebiotic chicory root fibre intake, improved bowel regularity and the enhanced quality of life is yet further proof of the important role a healthy gut microbiota plays on overall health and inner well-being.

To support this wealth of evidence surrounding its prebiotic chicory root fibres, BENEO also has an exclusive health claim for its Orafti® Inulin in promoting digestive health. The authorised EU health claim under article 13.5 is: “chicory inulin contributes to normal bowel function by increasing stool frequency”, which can be combined with general health-related well-being claims under article 10.3 that include: “chicory inulin promotes digestive health”, “chicory root fibre supports a healthy and balanced digestive system” and “with prebiotic fibre”.

The digestive health consumer

As the evidence in favour of prebiotics continues to grow, food and drink producers are already responding to consumer demand for products that promote inner well-being, with an increasing number of new product launches using a ‘feel good’ claim. However, there is still great market potential, with more than two-thirds of European consumers confirming that digestive health is very important to them and almost half of European consumers being very interest in the gut microbiota.

Understanding more about who these consumers are and what they are looking for is key to successful product development. In order to gather these insights, BENEO commissioned worldwide research into consumer attitudes and has identified the most important consumer target groups for digestive health, most notably these two segments:

  • Consumers interested in digestive health – one in three European consumers are interested in the impact of digestive health on their overall well-being, despite not experiencing any digestive issues. These consumers are looking to enjoy the holistic benefits associated with a healthy digestive system, such as improved mood, energy and weight.
  • Consumers seeking digestive solutions – one in five European consumers are affected by digestive health issues and are actively seeking out a solution to soothe their discomfort. Given this proactive search for digestive health aids, more than half of these consumers are extremely or very interested in fibres and prebiotics.

Taking these consumer groups into account when researching and planning new product development, will enable food and drink producers to identify the key focuses that are most important to their target audience and innovate in line with their needs.

Breakfast – the key occasion for digestive health

It’s clear that chicory root fibres aid the upkeep of digestive health and overall inner well-being. Therefore, there is an opportunity for manufacturers to integrate ingredients like BENEO’s Orafti® Inulin and Oligofructose into food and drink products to deliver the digestive health benefits that consumers are seeking. Consumers see breakfast as the preferred meal time to eat foods which support their digestive health the most. Therefore, just a few grams of chicory root fibres in a bowl of cereal in the morning and another few in their mid-morning snack or in a ready-made coffee, could achieve the effect that consumers desire in their preferred time frame.

In line with this, the team at the BENEO-Technology Center has created a fibre-enriched, prebiotic ready-to-drink coffee beverage, that promotes digestive health while keeping the blood glucose level in balance.

The wide range of drinkable and edible product ideas available from the BENEO-Technology Center, which incorporate prebiotic chicory root fibres, Orafti® Inulin and Oligofructose, for added health benefits, provide a wealth of opportunity for manufacturers which are looking to innovate.

Current research results and market knowledge indicate that digestive health is an increasing area of interest for both consumers and food and drink manufacturers alike. The importance of maintaining a balanced microbiota and, as a result, a healthy digestive system and overall well-being, will continue to be a top priority and area of focus in the months and years to come. Therefore, developing products using such ingredients can help manufacturers promote digestive health for the long-term, meet consumer demand for inner well-being and stay ahead of the competition as a result.