Besides criticisms of the plastic packaging and £2 price lies the concern that the shot is part of a wider trend of “magic bullet” solutions, where over-hyped – and often overpriced – health products are positioned as a panacea.
The milk-based kefir drink, which contains chicory fibre, mixed fruit, and “over five billion live cultures from 14 different strains”, claims to be “the ultimate gut shot”.
But considering that ZOE is widely known for its personalised nutrition programme, some say the market positioning of this “little bottle with big benefits” is somewhat of a contradiction.
“Are we heading into an area were marketing ‘fluff’ overrides purchase decisions based on recognised health claims?” asked Alan Marson, managing director at UK growth accelerator New Food Innovation. “The gut health claim is associated with the calcium addition – less than 1p of the cost and readily available in other foods.”
However, a spokeswoman for ZOE said: “Our price point is a reflection of the diverse range of high-quality, responsibly sourced ingredients in the overall product. The calcium claim is in line with food regulation and naturally present in the ingredients. No other kefir-based shots on the market contain this combination of fibre, live cultures, and colourful fruits.”
Gut shot designed ‘to help people kickstart their gut health journey’
When asked about the dangers of promoting “magic bullet” solutions, Marson told Vitafoods Insights: “I really believe the use of ‘magic bullet claims’ may oversimplify a food product's nutritional profile, emphasising specific nutrients and risking imbalances.
“Simultaneously, ‘inflated’ health claims in marketing may deceive consumers into perceiving a product as a comprehensive solution for health issues.
“Furthermore, in today[’s] economic climate I have a concern about cost disparity, where price premiums associated with calcium/vitamin-related gut health claims may not correlate with minimal actual ingredient costs, highlighting the necessity of promoting a diverse and balanced diet, extending beyond isolated nutrient claims.”
Asked whether there was a risk that the product’s market positioning played into the trend, the ZOE spokeswoman said: “Our collaboration with M&S is a way to bring the conversation about gut health to more people. In the free-to-access gut health guide found at www.zoe.com/gutshot we provide free advice on the several ways in which people can support gut health, beyond the gut shot itself.
“Our aim with this product is to provide an entry point to help people kickstart their gut health journey and increase their intake of fermented foods and fibre. We believe in personalised nutrition but we also understand the importance of bringing greater knowledge of nutrition to as many people as possible.
“To do this, we created a unique-to-market product which combines fermented kefir, is high in fibre, and contains a variety of plants, which is what makes it the ‘ultimate’ gut shot.”
In addition to kefir and chicory fibre, the shot contains mixed fruit purée (apple, strawberry, banana, blackcurrant, and blueberry); baobab fruit pulp; fruit extracts (blackcurrant and pomegranate); ginger juice; lemon juice; and cultures including Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus paracasei, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus.
Gut shot consumers most likely to be ‘worried well’
Some commentators pointed out that the consumers most likely to buy the shot were probably those who needed it least – especially considering that M&S is a premium retailer.
As the food critic Jay Rayner put it in The Guardian: “It is a stone-cold certainty… that the people who shell out for the new M&S Gut Shot, apparently boasting more live culture than the Southbank Centre, will not be the ones GPs are worried about.”
Others decried our cultural obsession with quick fixes.
“It's a great product idea but it's crazy!” wrote Rachel Crowder, a nutrition and health coach, on LinkedIn. “The same people who will buy these gut shots won't invest in their health in a more sustainable way by introducing more fibre or by getting proper help with their diet and lifestyle.”
In a society where instant gratification is so ingrained, it’s easier to sell a one-off wonder product than educate people on health goals that require long-term commitment. How can experts communicate the nuances of nutrition science to an audience that is generally looking for a cut-and-dried answer?
Marson called on industry players to put pressure on governments, adding that funding for education “on food, health, and diet, especially in schools and community care, is crucial”.
His other suggestions included “simplifying concepts, encouraging gradual changes, and providing clear, evidence-backed information [to] empower individuals, including students, to make informed choices for better overall health”.
He added: “Strengthening community-based and school-driven educational initiatives ensures broad access to valuable knowledge, contributing to a healthier and more resilient society.”
The ZOE spokeswoman said: “At ZOE, our mission is to improve the health of millions. We have focused on using high-quality ingredients to create the gut shot and we are aware the price point is not accessible to everyone.
“The shot does not have to be consumed every day; our goal is to create an opportunity for people to engage with gut health and access the free educational resources we have created, in order to help people make better food choices for overall health.”
Promoting informed consumer choices should be ‘a key consideration’
With digestive health poised to be a major trend in 2024 – one-third of UK consumers say they wish there were more products on the market to support their gut health – the timing of the launch is opportune.
Some say it smacks of jumping on a trend bandwagon. But is this so bad, if it means that consumers who would ordinarily reach for a fizzy drink go for a gut shot instead?
Marson said: “Absolutely – promoting informed consumer choices is a key consideration. While M&S's shift towards gut shots might attract a different consumer base, it's crucial to ensure that all consumers have access to clear information about their choices.
“Providing education on the health benefits and drawbacks of various beverage options can empower consumers to make informed decisions based on their individual preferences and health goals.”
The ZOE spokeswoman said: “We encourage people to consume a range of fermented foods including natural yogurt, plain kefir, sauerkraut, and miso. Those who are already eating a variety of fermented foods and lots of different plants are not necessarily the people who will benefit from being introduced to this product; it is meant to introduce gut health to a new audience. So far, we have also had very good reviews from parents whose children really enjoy it too!”