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Trending in digestive health: Experts spotlight HMOs and probiotic innovations

Consumer interest in digestive health is still going strong, especially in light of its link to immunity amid these trying times. A roundtable of experts speak to about probiotic innovations and the potential human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) hold for both babies’ and adults’ digestive health. Moreover, leading players in the space discuss the “next big thing” in gut health-promoting ingredients and NPD, boosted by improved consumer awareness.

“In the past digestive health was focused on good digestion by itself, but now we see that people are interested in digestive health related to well-being and immunity. Consumers are becoming aware of the impact of immunity to their overall wellness and are, therefore, starting to take action,” notes Laura Dijkstra - de Jong, Technical Innovation Manager at Fonterra.

FrieslandCampina Ingredients’ Marketing Manager of Active Nutrition, Neus Bonavida explains that consumers’ awareness of gut health – and the implications of neglecting it – have “spiralled.”

“While medication was traditionally seen as the solution for problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), bloating, constipation and stomach pain, today the focus is switching to prevention and more natural, dietary remedies. This includes targeted natural solutions for key consumer digestive concerns, which are no longer addressed only by nutraceuticals. Solutions are delivered more and more also by food and beverage companies stepping in with new formats, contributing to the total category growth,” Bonavida highlights.

“For the food and supplement industry, a better understanding of the microbiome and its impact on digestive and overall health is a huge opportunity,” Stefan Rüdenauer, Global Director of Human Nutrition Research and Development at BASF explains.

What is new in digestive health?
The “big story” is that there is a lot of growth in the digestive health space, according to Dr. Donald Cox, Director of R&D at Kerry. Over the past five years, the number of Google searches for “gut health” has grown by 669 percent and there is increasing evidence that these consumers understand the potential of digestive health ingredients, he states.

“Last year, we surveyed over 11,000 health-conscious consumers in 14 countries and discovered very high levels of understanding of the benefits of probiotics. Around eight in ten of the US consumers surveyed perceived them to provide digestive health benefits. In the UK, 72 percent of consumers who were aware of cultures – a term sometimes used to describe probiotics – were able to correctly identify their benefits for digestive health. In other words, consumers across the world have not only heard of probiotics, but also understand the benefits they provide,” Cox says.

“Another major development has been the increasing versatility of probiotics, driven by the emergence of Bacillus coagulans strains like GanedenBC30. These hardy, spore-forming bacteria have a structure that is more highly resistant to extremes of pH, heat, cold and pressure than vegetative cells, making them an ideal fit for the fortification of everyday foods. They have made it possible to innovate with probiotics in categories ranging from teas and coffees, to muffins, pizza and peanut butter,” Cox explains.

HMOs for gut health
Probiotics – alone, or combined with prebiotics – have been proven effective in aiding gut microflora and digestive health. For example, HMOs have a lot of potential in promoting gut health, says Bérengère Feuz, Marketing Director at Lallemand Health Solutions.

“An in vitro test detected that specific Bifidobacteria strains show a good synergy with HMOs. As natural indigestible sugars, they pass through the stomach intact. They act primarily as prebiotics, promoting the growth of Bifidobacteria and lactic acid bacteria able to metabolize them,” Feuz notes.

Unlike other generally known prebiotics, HMOs have been “specifically designed” for human consumption. HMOs are distinct in their molecular structure and composition – a major differentiator to prebiotics from other sources, notes Rüdenauer.

“2’-FL is the most abundant HMO in many mothers and selectively promotes the growth of bifidobacterial strains, while generally known prebiotics promote bacterial growth on a broader level. Bifidobacteria are recognized as beneficial bacteria not only during infancy, but throughout human life. They are protective by lowering inflammation, enhancing gut barrier function and providing fuel for intestinal cells via generating short chain fatty acids,” he explains.

Various gastrointestinal diseases have been associated with lower levels of Bifidobacteria like IBS or celiac disease. “In healthy adults, supplementation of 2’-FL was found to shift the gastrointestinal microbiota and to increase the abundance of Bifidobacteria, thus opening up a viable strategy to counteract dysbiosis related with low Bifidobacteria levels,” Rüdenauer says.

“BASF has completed in-house development of 2’-FL from strain to downstream processing using a specifically stable HMO fermentation strain designed for large-scale production of a high-quality product. With the launch of patent-protected Prebilactm 2’-FL for broad use beyond infant nutrition in dietary supplements, functional nutrition and medical food, BASF is working in collaboration with customers to drive innovative consumer health solutions to improve gut health globally for consumers across the stages of life,” he further adds.

Gut-brain axis
Another booming application is the gut-brain axis, Feuz highlights, since some specific psychobiotics have increasing evidence not only of their effect on stress-related gut discomfort but also on psychological stress resiliency.

“For example, a study showed that a psychobiotic formulation of Lactobacillus helveticus Rosell-52 and Bifidobacterium longum Rosell-175 developed had a 49 percent reduction in stress-induced gastrointestinal symptoms,” Feuz continues. The formulation was created by the Rosell Institute for Microbiome and Probiotics by Lallemand.

“Digestive health, and particularly the connection between gut, microbiome and brain, is one of the most cutting-edge areas of life science research at the moment. Only recently have scientists started to better understand the gut-brain axis and how the two-way communication between gut and brain may positively influence digestive and overall well-being,” Rüdenauer affirms.

Trending in digestive health
FrieslandCampina Ingredients has a long expertise in the digestive health market – being a supplier of prebiotic galactooligosaccharides (GOS) ingredients. The company is translating knowledge beyond early life nutrition, to help customers formulate more products with these essential prebiotics for adult consumers as well.

“They hold great promise for adult nutrition. Especially in the adult active nutrition space, combining the research and nutritional expertise alongside our application know-how, allows us to create convenient and nutritious digestive health concepts, targeting specific consumer needs, to be incorporated in everyday nutrition,” says Bonavida.

For Julie Imperato, Marketing Manager at Nexira, a core market driver is storytelling and the sustainability of ingredients. “The increasing number of food product launches with ‘ethical and environmental’ claims are also revealing the trend towards more sustainable food processes.”

“Millennials’ purchasing behavior is expanding across a greater range of categories driven by their entry into new life stages such as home ownership and parenthood. That said, Millennials are increasingly looking for products to be sustainable and eco-friendly with twice as many indicating they are willing to pay a premium for them compared to ten years ago. Nexira is now going one step beyond the path of sustainability with its inavea ingredients, by enhancing its current commitment to two of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN and by targeting carbon neutrality,” Imperato concludes.

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