Over the past five years, consumers have become a lot more concerned about their stomachs – and we’re not talking about waistlines. Probiotics and good-gut bacteria have become a hot-button topic, touted for their benefits to the digestive and immune system. Quickly, live-culture yoghurts gave way to kefirs, followed by a push on fermented foods and drinks like kombucha.
A study done by Global Market Insights this year found that the probiotics market size worldwide is set to exceed $65 billion (around £48 billion) by 2024, up from the $36.6 billion (£27.3 billion) in ingredient sales seen in 2015. The European probiotics market, led by Germany, France and the UK, is expected to generate more than $20 billion (£14.9 billion).
With the greater demand for probiotic foods, people are casting about for goodies that can be eaten during a commute or brought out at parties. As a result, there’s an emerging trend for shelf-stable snack foods, like crisps and cookies, that are fortified with probiotics to promote better digestion on the go.
The biggest challenge in producing the next generation of healthy snack foods is that probiotics have the annoying habit of withering in the face of high heat, reducing their advertised nutritive properties. It’s a problem that extends to live cultures and fermented products too.
“A lot of fermented foods no longer contain live microbes because they’re filtered or pasteurized,” explains Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, the Executive Science Officer of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP). This means that many mass-produced products like pickles and kimchi can have smaller populations of naturally occurring bacteria than is widely suggested.
This is where companies like Ganeden come into play. Bought up by Ireland-based food giant the Kerry Group in October, the American outfit owns the patent and exclusive rights to a probiotic called Ganeden BC30. It’s a spore that has a protective shell, which allows it to remain dormant (and therefore protected) while it goes through the cooking process. It doesn’t begin to germinate until it goes into the digestive system. This means it is one of the only probiotics currently on the market that will remain viable after being baked, dried and bagged.
Many brands are already taking advantage of its specialized properties. Ganeden says it is used in more than 750 food and beverages around the world and is approved for sale in 68 different countries. The US is the biggest market, but interest in Asia is also expanding quickly. The UK is another a growing segment, albeit a challenging one, since probiotics must legally be labelled as ‘cultures.’
Ganeden BC30 can be found in a variety of oatmeals, granola bars, baking mixes, gummy candies for children and more, demonstrating the kind of flexibility that makes it and similar innovations a tantalising prospect for big businesses like Kerry.
One of the biggest sectors to launch in 2017 are probiotic-enriched crisps. In the spring of 2017, Farmhouse Cultures, which started out selling sauerkraut and veggie drinks, launched Kraut Krisps. Made of corn and sauerkraut and fortified with Ganeden BC30, Farmhouse Cultures says it distributes these products to more than 1,400 locations in the United States, but are still mostly limited to natural and specialty food stores.
Luke’s Organic, however, launched a probiotic-bolstered sprouted grain and seed tortilla chips in March of 2017, and the brand is specifically targeting mainstream grocery stores across the United States, Europe, and Canada, as well as some Asian markets like Singapore.
Jaap Langenberg, founder of Luke’s Organic, thinks probiotic snack foods is a long-term segment that’s not going to go away any time soon. “We try to not be faddish about these flavour profiles,” he says. “We have a product that you could eat a little bit of everyday. There’s a lot of variety out there, but [these tortilla chips] are something that everyone could eat in front of a football game. That’s our approach.”
Michael Bush, President and CEO of Ganeden, agrees that there’s plenty of scope for development, as research has shown. “76% of consumers are aware of probiotics, and 79% (8 out of 10) prefer to consume probiotics through food and beverage as opposed to a supplement,” he says. “As more and more probiotic foods and beverages are being released, people are realizing that they can get their daily serving in other ways.”
Just one, small problem…
There’s no doubt that a global movement is underway, with the Americans leading the charge. But there are significant issues looming over probiotics: specifically, what exactly is a probiotic, and what does it really do?
Beyond vague generalities, these questions are particularly problematic in Europe, where the rules and regulations are, frankly, a mess. That’s basically what the International Probiotics Association Europe implied at the beginning of November, when it said in a statement that “no sensible or workable EU framework exists for the use of the term probiotic on labelling and commercial communications.”
Dr. Sanders at the ISAPP says that part of the problem is that not enough studies have been done. “It’s important to realize where the evidence for probiotics is and where it isn’t,” she says. “You can find multiple human clinical trials that have been published on probiotics for different endpoints, and they start to form a mosaic of efficacy, but use different strains, dosages and study populations.
“There’s certainly something there. But you have to parse that out for a given probiotic, a given dosage and a given demographic."
In other words, there really aren’t clear standards either nationally or internationally because research is so spotty.
But what does Sparkie think about the chances of new-wave probiotic snacks in the UK?
I think the basic public knowledge of what the yoghurt drinks do is fairly established now, so it is a good time to test the waters. I also think products would have to stand out under their own merit without the health claims, and marketing is going to be particularly expensive.
The whole prebiotic/probiotics market is definitely hampered in this country by the labelling laws. The FSA are not convinced that it really offers much in the way of health benefits – an expensive battle that has been waged for years, because the big food producers make a lot of money on those products elsewhere in the world.