CHICAGO — The human digestive system breaks down foods and liquids into macro and micro nutrients, which are then absorbed by the bloodstream and transported throughout the body to keep it functioning. This is only possible with a healthy digestive system, something that was poorly understood at a cellular level until the onset of the 21st century.

“Research on digestive health has undergone a renaissance of sorts in the last 20 years,” said Becca Henrickson, marketing manager – food cultures and enzymes, Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee. “There has been a large focus surrounding studies that deepen our knowledge of the bacteria living in our gut. The reason for this is we know that 97% of the bacteria in the human body resides in our gut and that the diversity and population of certain types of bacteria can confer several health benefits.”

John Quilter, vice president of global portfolio for proactive health, Kerry, Beloit, Wis., said, “There’s an ever-growing understanding of the gut-brain axis, and the relationship between digestive health and areas like mental well-being, mood and cognitive health. What’s also exciting is that this is cutting through to consumers. So, there’s been a major shift in perception of gut health from something that affects a particular area of the body to something that affects everything.”

Kerry recently published the results of a survey of more than 13,000 consumers across 16 countries. Digestive health ranked third on the list of reasons to purchase healthy lifestyle products, up from fourth in 2019. Forty-seven percent were aware of probiotics or cultures, more than the 42% who were aware in 2019.

“Another interesting finding was that foods and beverages commonly consumed at breakfast time are the most closely associated with digestive health,” Mr. Quilter said. “For example, 4 in 10 respondents globally said they would be interested in purchasing yogurts containing ingredients with digestive health benefits. Many other categories were also strongly associated with digestive health, including fruit and vegetable juices, dairy-based drinks, and breakfast cereal/granola.”

The microbiome

Trillions of bacteria reside in the gastrointestinal system. This microbial community — the microbiome — has distinct physio-chemical properties that help regulate bodily functions. The healthy gut bacteria often are supplemented through the consumption of probiotics. These are live microorganisms, most often lactic acid bacteria, which when consumed in adequate amounts, help create a better-balanced microbiome.

Probiotics, prebiotics and dietary fibers are the leading ingredients that product developers are including in formulations for improved digestion. Prebiotics are the fuel for probiotics to proliferate and positively impact the body. Prebiotics frequently are equated with dietary fibers, but only a subset of dietary fibers qualify as prebiotics. Further, according to the broad scientific definition from the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), prebiotics need not be forms of dietary fiber.

Chr. Hansen scientists focus on how various bacteria affect the microbiome at several life stages. Other research includes growing probiotic strains under varying conditions to see how well they respond to prebiotics for growth.

“In our labs, we utilize advanced technology that can simulate the bacteria journey in the human body,” Ms. Henrickson said. “It does this by replicating the movements and environment of the stomach, small intestine and large intestine. We can replicate this system for any life stage. Our experiments utilize test samples from volunteers that allow us to understand how the composition of the microbiome changes under different conditions. This research enables our scientists to better understand gut health and the impact of various bacterial strains on our gut flora at different life stages.”

Through its Outside Voice consumer insights platform, ADM, Chicago, identified gut health specifically related to the gut microbiome as one of five consumer trends to emerge in 2021. A quarter of global consumers suffer from digestive health issues, and half said it has a moderate to severe impact on their overall health, ADM found.

Beyond bacteria

Postbiotics are an emerging category of digestive health ingredients. They do away with the need to add probiotics by being the healthy metabolites that the microbiome produce, the compounds that possess the actual health benefit. This includes an array of enzymes, peptides, organic acids, fatty acids and more.

“Postbiotics are the new kids on the block,” said Justin Green, director of scientific affairs, Cargill Health Technologies, Minneapolis. “However, while consumer awareness is still in its infancy, this emerging health ingredient has a lot to offer the immune and gut health space. Postbiotics provide increased stability and consistency as compared to the more familiar probiotics.”

About 15 years ago, Cargill developed a dried yeast fermentate with composition of metabolites and compounds, not a specific vitamin, molecule or extract. Today it fits the scope of ISAPP’s consensus definition of postbiotic.

“It is a one-of-a-kind microbiome-modulating ingredient clinically shown to support immune and digestive health,” Mr. Green said. “This postbiotic is a whole food fermentate made through a natural, proprietary process that creates a unique fingerprint of metabolites that supports a healthy gut microbiome.

“The novel ingredient was inspired by a real-life health discovery story. Factory employees at our founding company’s fermentation facility were taking fewer sick days than their office-bound colleagues.”

To understand why, the company commissioned pilot studies and learned its fermented feed product supported the immune health of the factory workers exposed to the product. The company embarked on years of clinical research to show the safety and efficacy of this postbiotic ingredient for people.

Schaumburg, Ill.-based Comet Bio has a story to tell with its arabinoxylan prebiotic fiber, which is made from upcycled wheat straw.

“We upcycle crop leftovers into healthy and sustainable ingredients,” said Hannah Ackermann, corporate communications manager. “Our proprietary technology allows us to reclaim and purify lost nutrients from food system waste for supplements, food and beverages.

“Arabinoxylan has clinically proven prebiotic and immunity benefits. Another significant advantage is its potency, allowing a front-of-pack prebiotic claim with only half the inclusion level of other prebiotics. Its lower inclusion level also enables manufacturers to incorporate it in their products without significant reformulation and for a better value.”

Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill., offers a range of prebiotics. Its short-chain fructooligosaccharide (scFOS) is a prebiotic soluble fiber derived from sucrose.

“It is derived from sugar cane utilizing a bio-fermentation proprietary process and non-GMO ingredients,” said Tatiana Rusev, global senior manager-nutrition at Ingredion. “The result is a 95% pure form of scFOS. There is over 20 years of research and more than 200 scientific publications that support its ability to promote human health in several key areas. These benefits are easily obtained by including even very small quantities, providing a cost-effective way to add consumer-friendly label claims, such as gentle prebiotic, promotes digestive function and increases levels of good bacteria.”

The company’s galactooligosaccharide prebiotic is a soluble fiber synthesized from food-grade lactose. It is sold in a syrup form with 57% minimum GOS content and is stable under high temperature and low pH conditions. Applications include infant formula, dairy products, cereal, beverages and dietary supplements.

Beneo, Parsippany, NJ, has long been focused on digestive health and the benefits of prebiotic chicory root fibers — inulin and oligofructose — to help consumers with healthier diets and lifestyles. The non-GMO fibers are obtained from chicory root via a gentle hot water extraction.

“Additional benefits of being soluble and having a pleasant, natural taste allow for inulin and oligofructose to be easily incorporated into an extensive range of food products — from yogurt to breakfast cereals to savory items — while maintaining or even improving taste and texture,” said Kyle Krause, product manager, functional fibers and carbohydrates at Beneo. “In cereal bars, for example, our chicory root fiber helps reduce calories by acting as a binder.”

Insoluble fibers also aid in digestive health by adding bulk to stool, which in turn speeds transit through the lower intestines and out of the body, thus helping to prevent or alleviate constipation. The most common insoluble fiber food ingredients are lignin, cellulose and some hemicelluloses. Vegetables and cereal grains are especially rich in insoluble fiber, with the highest amounts in wheat and corn.