Gut health: Why this consumer trend is here to stay

The term gut health has gained increasing interest in recent years as consumer understanding of the function and importance of the gut microbiome continues to grow. With that increased interest in the gut microbiome, comes the increasing understanding of what pre- and probiotics are and how they impact the body.

What is the gut microbiome?

Each of us has trillions of microbes or bacteria living in our gut. These are collectively referred to as the microbiome. The two most common species of helpful bacteria found in our gut microbiome are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Maintaining a healthy balance between the helpful (good) bacteria and the unhelpful (bad) bacteria is fundamental in supporting a healthy digestive system, with the gut now understood to be central to health, containing more than 70% of our immune system.

How is the trend towards gut-friendly foods developing?

Gut health has transitioned from something understood by doctors and dieticians, into a regularly referenced, mainstream topic, with consumer understanding growing and increasing numbers of new ‘gut-friendly’ products hitting supermarket shelves every day.

“Gut health really is an important area within food and drink, particularly functional food and drink,” according to Rick Miller, associate director for specialised nutrition at market research firm Mintel. “It’s moving away from the common areas that we would have associated with gut health in food and drink which is functional and clinical management and moving into the everyday gut health support, so for conditions like functional bloating and irritable bowel syndrome.”

What are prebiotics in food?

Prebiotics in food are compounds which support the beneficial microorganisms or good bacteria in the gut (gastrointestinal tract).

Dietary prebiotics are typically nondigestible fibre compounds that pass undigested through the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract, supporting the growth of the ‘good’ bacteria in the colon. Prebiotics were first identified and named by academic researcher Marcel Roberfroid in 1995. Prebiotics can be found in a multitude of foods, including almonds, bananas, wholegrain wheat, corn, rye and barley, and flaxseeds

What are probiotics in food?

Probiotics in foods are live microorganisms often described as helpful or ‘good’ bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy. Probiotics are available in foods such as live yogurt.

The first probiotic, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, was discovered by Bulgarian physician and microbiologist Stamen Grigorov in 1905.

Gut-health: Why this consumer trend is here to stay. GettyImages-fcafotodigital

How has the gut-friendly trend evolved?

Many consumers first became aware of the concept of gut-friendly food and drinks products with the launch of probiotic milk drinks such as Yakult, Actimel and Muller Vitality back in the 1990s.

Yakult

Gut-health: Why this consumer trend is here to stay. Image credit: Yakult

“Consumer understanding of gut health has grown significantly in recent years, and we attribute this to various factors,” Reshma Patel, marketing manager at Yakult UK, told FoodNavigator. “While probiotics have been recognised globally for some time, it’s only relatively recently that scientific advancements have highlighted the profound impact of gut health on overall well-being. It extends way beyond digestion, with growing evidence revealing the interconnection of the body’s major organs, with the gut at the centre of this intricate system. Another driving force has been a cultural shift towards preventive health measures rather than just focusing on cure. People are being increasingly proactive in maintaining their health, rather than waiting for diseases or illnesses to strike.”

However, it is only in recent years that sales have really begun to skyrocket and what was once considered the purchase of the health conscious is now considered mainstream. Similarly, kombucha and kefir are two drinks which went from little heard of health drinks to the drink of choice for many, with the global kefir market reaching an estimate value of $1.99 billion in 2024 and the global kombucha market estimated at USD 2.97 billion in 2024.

“Over the last ten years the patents and filings related to food and drink with probiotics added to them has just soared,” Mintel’s Miller said during a recent Fi Webinar Series. “We’ve seen an exponential growth of probiotic infused products.”

Gut Health 3 - GettyImages-Jan-Otto

Gut-health: Why this consumer trend is here to stay. GettyImages/Jan-Otto

Why are sales of gut-friendly products increasing?

The increase in awareness of the microbiome and the fundamental role it plays in the function of the human body is certainly responsible, in part, for the consumer trend towards specifically buying foods with probiotics included. The gut microbiome has been linked, not just to gut health, but with the health of the entire body. The gut-brain axis or the communication between the gut and the brain​ is one fundamental function currently being researched by scientists and also gaining widespread recognition amongst consumers. The gut-skin axis and the gut-liver axis are two other connections which are beginning to be studied and understood. Furthermore, gut health has also been linked to the prevention of colorectal cancer​ and other chronic diseases.

Gut health bar - Image credit Bio&Me

Gut-health: Why this consumer trend is here to stay. Image credit Bio&Me

However, an increase in gastric health conditions could also be responsible for the increased interest in gut-friendly products as consumers seek more natural alternatives to medication.

“The World Gastroenterology Society suspects that about 40% all over the world suffer with some sort of functional gastric disorder,” explained Mintel’s Miller.

“This trend has been accelerated through trusted voices, media coverage, and influencers who have mainstreamed the concept of gut health, this has helped reach more people at a greater frequency,” adds Yakult UK’s Patel.

Food manufacturers are also getting more creative with the types of products they release. Health food brand Bio&Me, founded by Dr Megan Rossi, better known to many as The Gut Health Doctor, is preparing to launch gut-friendly flapjack bars.

“Bars are typically laden with added sugars, including popular bars marked as healthier,” said Dr Rossi. “These tend to use exotic sounding names such as ‘coconut sugar’ and ‘brown rice syrup’ to disguise that they contain added sugars – but according to the science, irrespective of the source, they are still treated like standard sugar in our body. There hasn’t been one that I, as a gut health specialist, have been really impressed by, so it was a no-brainer to work our Bio&Me magic and create great-tasting flapjack bars.”

Gut health 4 - GettyImages-piotr_malczyk

Gut-health: Why this consumer trend is here to stay. GettyImages/piotr_malczyk

What is the future for prebiotics and probiotics in food and drinks?

The future looks bright for prebiotic and probiotic infused foods and drinks as consumer understanding of the role the gut plays in overall health continues to grow, fuelling sales. But the form in which products are formulated and marketed is likely to evolve over time.

“In the future, we’re predicting that personalisation gut-health solutions really are going to pave the way for this particular space,” said Mintel’s Miller.

In fact, gut-health brands such as Zoe​ are already implementing this personalised approach and is quickly becoming dominant in the market.

Gut-health personalisation is likely to develop further through the use of newer technologies, such breath tests which detect microbial overgrowth, allowing for brands to approach consumers on an individual basis.