Digestive health and its relationship to main-taining a healthy lifestyle is gaining greater attention from the food and beverage product developers. Educational marketing campaigns have had the desired impact and con-sumers are relating ingredients such as fiber and probiotics to improved digestive health.

“Probiotics and fiber are two key ingredients related to digestive health,” said Ewa Hudson, director of global health and wellness research for Euromonitor International. “I would say fiber is more well-known, just because when you have a digestive problem the first thing a doctor will tell you is to get more fiber in your diet.”

Ms. Hudson said the largest brands in the digestive health category include such common names as Cheerios, Nature’s Own and Oroweat, which all feature high levels of fiber.

“If you look at digestive health in the U.S., it is a $12 billion category,” Ms. Hudson said. “Probiotics are much lower on the list, not because products containing them are not selling, but because products don’t naturally feature them.”

Within the probiotic segment, yogurt remains the most popular carrier of the ingredient. Euromonitor research shows probiotic yogurt makes up 35% of the yogurt market, and it is growing.

“It is a very significant market,” Ms. Hudson said.

Leaders in the category include Groupe Danone’s Activia brand, Yakult and Chobani. Ms. Hudson added that while the Chobani brand may feature probiotics, that may not necessarily be why consumers are buying it.

“They may also like the texture and high level of protein,” she said.

Insight from the market research firm The NPD Group indicates growth in the yogurt category may be ongoing, which would prove positive for the digestive health category.

The NPD Group’s National Eating Trends research shows that per capita yogurt consumption has more than doubled over the decade, and now nearly one in three individuals eats yogurt.

“Although there are currently some marketplace changes in the category, yogurt has shown remarkable growth over the last decade and innovation, like new packaging and Greek-style yogurts, continues to breathe new life into the category,” said Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. “Innovation in the yogurt category is just one component. Taking a look into U.S. homes to see the behavioral drivers behind yogurt’s growth helps to round out the story for food marketers interested in either riding this wave or trying to replicate this story in other categories.”

Looking at yogurt consumption in the home, where three-fourths of all yogurt consumption takes place, yogurt has grown at all eating occasions — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between meals, according to The NPD Group. Consumers use yogurt as a meal, a meal replacement, a snack, and even as a dessert. Over the last five years, the in-home breakfast occasion has been the primary driver behind incremental eating occasions with 39% of incremental yogurt eating occasions, followed by 20% from between meal snack occasions and 19% from lunch.

New product development trends

Data provided by Mintel International, Chicago, shows product development activity in the digestive health category is ongoing. Between 2011 and 2012, the most active product categories included dairy, “other beverages,” and snacks. All three feature convenient carriers for the delivery of a functional benefit. But the category that saw the greatest growth was baby food, which highlights what researchers are learning about the relationship between nutrition and gut health.

Ms. Hudson called the baby food category a significant opportunity for digestive health, especially for products featuring probiotics.

“Overall global functional milk formula sales are estimated to be $35 billion,” she said. “In Poland, for example, three-quarters of the leading brands are fortified with probiotics or prebiotics.

“If you look at global players like Danone, most of their products are fortified. Other players in the market are doing the same with saccharides or probiotics. As I look at the market, the private label players may be the ones that are not using probiotics, because they may not have the science developed yet.”

New applications abound

A variety of new products with digestive health benefits were on display at the Natural Products Expo held in Anaheim, Calif., in early March. The Cookie Department, Berkeley, Calif., exhibited a gluten-free cookie with probiotics while companies such as CredibleCravings, Irvine, Calif., and Nature Research Nutritionals, Austin, Texas, exhibited products featuring probiotics and targeting the women’s nutrition category. CredibleCravings featured a snack bar for pregnant and nursing women while Nature Research offered Empowered, a meal replacement powder for pregnant and nursing women.

NextFoods, Boulder, Colo., also recently extended its Goodbelly probiotic juice product line with a carrot ginger flavor. The product contains carrot juice infused with ginger extract and is gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan. Other varieties include pomegranate blackberry, blueberry acai, mango, cranberry watermelon, pink grapefruit, coconut water, tropical green and tropical orange.

Post Foods, St. Louis, also has plans in the health and wellness space for its recently acquired Attune Foods business, for which it paid $9.2 million. Attune is a maker of high-fiber and gluten-free cereals as well as organic crackers and bars featuring probiotics.

While discussing the company’s first-quarter earnings, Terry Block, president and chief operating officer, said the acquisition of Attune gives Post a foothold in the natural foods channel, where he considers the company underrepresented, and Attune’s organic and probiotic platforms offer the company future options.