Digestive health

by Eric Schroeder
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It may not be the most widespread claim on products, it may not even be the fastest growing, but digestive health appears firmly entrenched in manufacturers’ minds and is gaining momentum in the U.S. marketplace.

While data released earlier this year by Mintel’s Global New Products Database showed the United States to be the only country out of 24 to not list digestive health as the top health claim currently appearing on products (cardiovascular was No. 1, digestive health was No. 2), there is reason to believe the gap is narrowing based on the growing introduction of products focusing on prebiotics, probiotics, fiber or immunity. The reason is simple: people want to believe they are eating healthy, which in turn makes them happy.

Yogurts, ice cream, soups and fruit juices are just a few of the vehicles in which digestive health ingredients are being delivered. Their acceptance is bearing out in climbing sales.

For example, dollar sales of products touting fiber, probiotic or lactose free benefits — three issues with relevance to digestive health — rose 12%, 10% and 3%, respectively, in the 52 weeks ended Aug. 8, 2009, according to The Nielsen Co., New York. The growth was ahead of the pace for other popular health claims such as cholesterol free, up 1.2%, no calories, up 0.4%, and reduced fat, up 0.1%.

And while dollar sales of probiotic products at $1.6 billion remain fairly small in comparison to other health and wellness claims, they’re fast approaching levels achieved by products featuring soy and carb conscious claims, according to Nielsen.

The pace of new product introductions with functional-digestive claims on packaging also supports the strength of the trend. Through Oct. 12, 125 new products have been launched in the United States with a functional-digestive claim, according to Mintel International Group Ltd., Chicago. This compared with 166 products introduced in 2008, 56 in 2007, 28 in 2006 and 17 in 2005.

Dairy stood out in 2008 with 74 new product introductions — thanks in large part to innovation in the yogurt category — but launches have been more balanced across the board thus far in 2009, according to Mintel. So far, 39 dairy products have been introduced, followed by 31 non-alcoholic beverages, 20 snacks, 11 desserts and ice creams, and 8 bakery items.

Cleaning up claims

Digestive health claims came under the microscope late last month when The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., said it would create a $35 million fund to reimburse qualified consumers for products purchased with alleged misleading advertising. Dannon was accused of making misleading statements about immunity as it pertained to digestive health in its Activia, Activia Light, DanActive and DanActive Light products.

As part of the settlement, Dannon removed the word "immunity" from the product labeling and packaging of its

DanActive branded products, as well as the phrase "they have a positive effect on your digestive tract’s immune system" from the inside packaging. The phrasing was changed to "they interact with your digestive tract’s immune system."

A similar suit is pending against General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, and its YoPlus brand of yogurts, which were introduced in August 2007. The company, which has not commented on the allegations, appears unfazed, and on Sept. 17 launched YoPlus Light as another way to regulate digestive health.

General Mills’ digestive health kick is not limited to yogurt, either. This fall the company began rolling out High Fiber soups from Progresso. The soups contain 28% of the recommended daily value of fiber, a key component to digestive health.

For all the success that Dannon and General Mills have had with digestive health through their yogurt lines, the same may not be said for Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., which tried to capture another aspect of the dairy case through its line of LiveActive snacking cheeses.

Irene Rosenfeld, chief executive officer of Kraft, earlier this year admitted the product’s market reception since its introduction two years ago has been disappointing. Despite the lackluster response to the single-serve cheeses, Kraft has sought to bring probiotic and prebiotic benefits to other categories, including cottage cheese, granola bars, breakfast cereals, and even Crystal Light drink mixes.

Take a drink for digestive health

Yogurt may receive much of the hype when it comes to digestive health, but new research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests prunes and plum juice also pack a digestive punch.

In a controlled 14-day study of 36 adults (18 males and 18 females), researchers found individuals consuming a daily portion of plum juice prior to a meal reported softer stools and immediate relief of constipation symptoms compared with participants given apple juice alone or apple juice with Metamucil.

The study, which appeared on-line in The Internet Journal of Nutrition and Wellness, was supported by Sunsweet Growers, Inc., a Yuba City, Calif.-based company whose PlumSmart juice was used in the research. PlumSmart was introduced several years ago, while PlumSmart Light hit store shelves last year. Both products prominently feature "for digestive health" on the front of each juice bottle. PlumSmart is made from a special variety of fresh plums, and contains natural prebiotic fiber, which increases the beneficial cultures in the digestive tract. PlumSmart provides 3 grams of fiber per 9-oz serving and 120% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C.

In a discussion of the study’s findings, researchers said the digestive benefits probably stem from the sorbitol and fiber content in prunes, as well as the substantial amount of polyphenols in prunes, which contribute to the laxative action. Prunes also contain diphenylisation, a known laxative, researchers noted.

No shortage of research sources

In addition to scientific research on the subject, the amount of consumer marketing research on digestive health is increasing. Groups such as the Natural Marketing Institute, Packaged Facts, Frost & Sullivan and New Nutrition Business are just a few of the research organizations that have released reports over the past month with an eye toward digestive health.

Gregory J. Stephens, vice-president of strategic consulting for the Natural Marketing Institute, Harleysville, Pa., is part of a panel that will discuss market opportunities and consumer trends relating to probiotics at the SupplySide West 2009 conference next month in Las Vegas. Citing a N.M.I. study, Mr. Stephens said awareness of probiotics grew to 49% among consumers in 2008, up from 18% in 2005. Awareness of prebiotics, meanwhile, rose to 18% in 2008 from 7% in 2005, he said.

"There is a lot more information in the media," Mr. Stephens said of the increase in awareness. "And generally speaking, prebiotics and probiotics have good scientific basis behind them."

He indicated that while 70% of Americans surveyed are still unclear of probiotics benefits, the ingredient has been widely accepted because of its perceived "halo effect." In other words, while consumers may not understand what specific benefits probiotics have on digestive health, they recognize the importance probiotics have on overall general health, he explained.

Mr. Stephens also noted that as consumer awareness grows, what benefits are promoted on the label of the product is likely to be less critical than the fact the product contains probiotics. Instead, he said, the labels may serve more as a way to show what particularly strains of the bacterium are in the product.

Similar findings on consumer awareness may be found in a "U.S. Digestive Health Ingredients Markets" report from Frost & Sullivan, London. The research group said while Americans are beginning to appreciate the value of prebiotics, probiotics, digestive enzymes and zinc carnosine, they are unsure of the exact benefits of each or the products that may contain the ingredients.

"The lack of consumer knowledge of the specific functions of these digestive health ingredients is proving to be a huge challenge for manufacturers," Frost & Sullivan said. "Educational awareness programs and marketing campaigns must be unleashed by both end-user manufacturers and ingredient manufacturers to overcome this issue."

Packaged Facts, meanwhile, just published "Digestive Health, Immunity and Probiotics: Trends in the Worldwide Food and Beverage Markets," which highlights challenges to the market, including consumer confusion and skepticism, as well as balancing health benefits with an appetizing product.

"Gaining consumer confidence is a major issue in the long-term profitability of digestive and immunity-enhancing functional food and beverages," Packaged Facts said. "Surveys show that although consumers are making active attempts to eat healthier, they are generally not willing to do so by compromising sensory benefits."

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