The prebiotic category continues to rise in popularity, fueled by emerging science, innovative new products and rising consumer awareness. In fact, prebiotic awareness is currently at over 80%, with 70% of regular supplement users are very or extremely familiar with prebiotics, according to a recent global survey of supplement consumers fielded by Trust Transparency Center and the Global Prebiotic Association (GPA).
GPA is currently also predicting close to 20% year-on-year growth in the prebiotic market going forward, as factors including a rise in both immunity and general health product markets combine to drive up consumer demand, while the opportunities for brands to use prebiotic ingredients in product reformulation is creating surging industry interest.
Emerging research shows a growing body of evidence for the benefits of prebiotic ingredients in a wide variety of areas—from inflammation to mood, and satiety to allergy and many other conditions mediated through modulation of the microbiome.
A prebiotic history lesson
The term prebiotic was first coined in the mid-90s, in the bar of a London hotel. Thankfully, the two academics sharing a drink there published their ideas—and so, according to at least one of the two gentlemen involved, this is how the term prebiotic was born.
For a long time, prebiotics have been thought of primarily as non-digestible carbohydrates that ultimately get metabolised by intestinal microbiota—essentially ‘feeding’ host bacteria.
The evolving definition was advanced in 2007 when the FAO Technical Meeting on Prebiotics defined the term 'prebiotic' as “a non-viable food component that confers a health benefit on the host associated with the modulation of microflora”.
This definition was taken further by The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISSAP) in 2016, to “a substrate that is selectively utilised by host microorganisms, conferring a health benefit.” More recently still, the Global Prebiotic Association augmented the definition to: “A nutritional product and/or ingredient selectively utilised in the microbiome producing health benefits”.
These last definitions begin to account for new science that is suggesting a role for ingredient groups like polyphenols and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) as emerging prebiotics, in addition to allowing a more developed understanding of mechanistic science that goes beyond simply feeding host microorganisms. Newer ingredients include isomaltooligosaccharides, (IMO) xylooligosaccharides (XOS), arabino-oligosaccharides (AOS), beta-glucans and resistant starches getting acknowledged for their prebiotic function. Many of these more recently developed ingredients provide much more versatility and utility, since they are effective at smaller doses creating much more flexible formulation opportunities.
As the understanding and acceptance of what prebiotics are, and can potentially be, continues to evolve, so does the level of interest from researchers and industry players alike. Increasingly, research is focusing on new and exciting aspects of microbiome modulation, through the use of prebiotics. In fact, some prebiotics are now known to directly up-regulate short-chain fatty acids (such as acetate, butyrate, and propionate) leading to efficacy in blood sugar management, satiety and cognition in addition to the well-founded digestion, immunity and inflammation benefits.
Other areas where the science suggesting roles for prebiotic has exploded in recent years includes improvement of gut barrier function, with implications for inflammation and leaky gut, targeting and reduction of pathogenic bacteria population, the synthesis of metabolites that impact mineral absorption or cognitive function, and altering inter-species competition within the microbiome through receptor interaction.
While research is increasing, it’s clear there’s lots more work to be done, and much that needs to be discovered. The emergence of new technology such as shotgun metagenomic sequencing has expanded our ability to understand and detect more genomic DNA to understand the impact of ingredients and conditions on the microbiome and the species there, including better understanding of the true synergistic impact of pre and probiotics.
These developments will shine further light on the ways in which potential prebiotics of all kinds impact our hugely complex gut microbiome environment.
The evolving science coupled with growing industry interest is putting prebiotics at the center of a ‘perfect storm’ for rapid category growth. In addition to diversifying the market of prebiotics, these new developments are creating product line extension opportunities for immune and general wellness formulations, and also reinvigorating the excitement around probiotics as food, beverage and supplement companies consider adding prebiotics to their probiotic formulations to create synbiotics. Another trend is the addition of multiple prebiotic ingredients, recognising the benefits of leveraging different mechanism of action.
With a raft of exciting new science suggesting the potential for polyphenols and other emerging prebiotics, it’s safe to say that there is much, much more to this category than fibre.
Len Monheit is executive director, Global Prebiotic Association and CEO, Trust Transparency Center