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Digesting The Right Information

Shoppers are finally catching on to the benefits of supporting digestive health. The next step is a deeper understanding of the ingredients and what they do.

It used to be that “bacteria” was a negative word—parents demanded antibacterial soaps in schools; dreaded illnesses were classified as bacterial or viral and treated as such. All in all, it’s safe to say that shoppers, when confronted with the term “bacteria,” were more often than not looking for ways to destroy it.

Such is not the case today, reported market researcher Datamonitor, as American consumers are becoming increasingly accepting of the concept of friendly bacteria. And unlike many campaigns, this one seemed to happen overnight.

According to Datamonitor, in 2008, a national survey developed by Opinion Research Corporation found that only 15 percent of American adults were familiar with healthy bacteria—85 percent of respondents reported knowing “little to nothing.” Likewise, that same year, Kraft Foods commissioned a study finding that nearly two-thirds of Americans said they are “not at all familiar” with probiotics. Even more upsetting perhaps was that only 13 percent of those who were familiar with probiotics could define the term accurately.

And while Americans might still be struggling with the technical definitions and foundational understanding of probiotics, interestingly, their trust in them is nevertheless growing.

Flash forward to February 2009:

Datamonitor’s study, entitled Opportunities in Digestive and Immunity Health: Consumer Attitudes and Behaviors, reported that only 14 percent of Americans found probiotic product claims to be untrustworthy, and a whopping 38 percent of shoppers trusted foods and beverages that make digestive health claims. Even though the US still lags behind Europe in its acceptance of these digestive category mainstays, natural products retailers can look forward to even better days ahead.

“Recognition of probiotics still has some way to go,” Mark Whalley, consumer markets analyst at Datamonitor, said in a statement. “However, it seems that the more consumers use these kinds of products in everyday life, the more they believe in the benefits.” “We have progressed from a bacteria- phobic society to one in which people now say, ‘oh, I am taking a probiotic,’” agreed Brenda Watson, president and founder of ReNew Life (Clearwater, FL). “This can only be good.” All Press is Good Press?

Although it might not be ideal, digestive health product manufacturers and retailers have the mainstream to thank for the category’s surge in popularity. As Whalley pointed out, the more consumers are faced with yogurts and beverages in the supermarket promoting probiotics (and making other digestive health claims), the more comfortable they are with the category in general.

What’s interesting about digestive and probiotic-fortified products in the mainstream like Activia is that they appeal to mainstream shoppers seeking an alternative medicinal benefit, but who may not be dedicated enough to the category to visit a natural products store or seek out a supplement just yet. And this mass, crash-course education driven by major food companies yields both benefits and pitfalls, according to natural product manufacturers and retailers.

“Our customer has heard of good bacteria, and probiotics are huge right now,” said Libby Rawlinson of Gastonia, NC-based Organic Marketplace. “But many of the people that come in that haven’t taken a probiotic in the past have a lot of questions about what it is, what it does for them, why they should take it, etc. It’s more of a curiosity.” In this way, shoppers recognize the name probiotics—they recognize that it’s good for them, but don’t exactly know why.

“In the case of probiotics, [mainstream press] has helped in that many more consumers are now educated on the benefits of probiotics. And while consumers may not know exactly what probiotics do, they do know that they are good for their digestive health,” said Katie Umentum, director of marketing at Enzymatic Therapy (Green Bay, WI), echoing the findings of the Datamonitor study. While it’s certainly a step in the right direction that shoppers can make the connection between probiotics and digestion, this is just not enough to encourage the customer to seek out a product that will actually yield a noticeable benefit—and this might ultimately hurt the category.

“Consumers may not be getting enough of, or the right kind of, probiotics they need in food products that are touting the claims,” Umentum continued. “The same can be said for fiber.” According to Tim Gamble, senior vice president of Nutraceutix, Inc. (Redmond, WA), recent press about probiotic supplemented foods utilizing unfounded claims has the potential to create a negative impression among consumers about probiotics.

“A number of overzealous brand marketing departments have gone beyond what is permissible in terms of making claims—not an uncommon practice, and one that should be controlled,” he said. “This can create a misleading opinion among consumers about the ingredients involved when it is not the ingredients themselves, but the brands that should be frowned upon for such behavior.” “You cannot get all the benefits that good bacteria can provide just from a product such as Activia,” added Watson. 

“Although many mainstream commercials help bring awareness to the general public about healthy gut bacteria, there are much more effective products to be found in your local health food stores.” But if you ask Umentum, there is a silver lining: many shoppers will take what they see in commercials and seek out more information online or otherwise research it on their own. And retailers can depend on the savviness of the modern American consumer to bring them into a store they might not otherwise frequent to buy digestive products they can’t get in the supermarket.

“Infomercials and the Dr. Ozs of the world have been telling people about whole body cleanses and high fiber diets,” agreed Thom McDonald, project manager at Health Foods Unlimited, a natural products store located in Centerville, OH. “Those people brought attention to the category, but we have to legitimize it or give it some ethical value so that people aren’t getting junk. If it doesn’t work, you’ve lost the customer.” Who’s Who The American diet is stereotypically and notoriously filled with pizza, potato chips and Big Macs—foods that wreak havoc on the digestive system. Not to mention, the stresses associated with the recession are becoming as American as apple pie, and leading to even more digestive upset.

“This is one category where people of all ages are affected,” said Umentum. “With the added stress of a challenged economy, consumers’ digestion can be affected adversely. Plus, some folks, when under stress, reach more often for comfort foods which may cause digestive issues.” So it’s really no wonder why fortified foods have caught on in the mainstream.

But as shoppers begin to realize that they might need more than what a yogurt can offer in terms of digestive support, many will turn to the natural products retailer for a supposed quick fix before giving up on their beloved comfort foods. And it is at this juncture that retailers have an opportunity to educate—especially because the digestive health category is one that spans literally every type of shopper.

“Everyone can benefit from paying extra attention to their digestive health,” said Watson. “With very few exceptions, we do not suddenly wake up one day with poor health, and much of this is linked to having a healthy digestive system. Aging, poor food quality, faulty food preparation methods, external toxins, stress, too little exercise and many other factors contribute to poor health.” And though Watson stressed that digestive health is a category for the masses, she specifically cited Baby Boomers and expectant mothers as a perfect customer base. “They recognize the importance of feeling good and want to enjoy their children and grandchildren without the support of drugs,” she explained.

But according to Rawlinson, there might be something more to this success. “We deal with a lot of expectant mothers and new mothers because of all the pre- and probiotics that the babies get via breastfeeding,” she observed. “And we tend to find that kids who were breastfed have fewer digestive issues later in life.” 

“We are even seeing children’s digestive health becoming a much more pertinent topic,” added Maday Labrador, director of scientific affairs at Enzymedica (Port Charlotte, FL). “A healthy digestive system is not just about digestion; it allows all of the other systems of the body to have the supplies needed to function properly.” In the case of Health Foods Unlimited, though, McDonald does see children’s digestive health as a category driver—but he’s waiting for the manufacturing end to catch up with the demand. “The trend in children’s digestive health is there, but the best way to describe it is that it’s still in its infancy,” he quipped. 

“Doctors are saying that kids should take digestive enzymes and probiotics, but you only have a couple of companies that make good digestive products for kids.” In-Store Tips Because of this category’s wide customer base, many manufacturers, like Gamble, would like to see the digestive health supplement reach the reputation enjoyed by the multivitamin as a daily necessity. But the category isn’t quite there yet, and to help introduce shoppers to the vital benefits of these supplements, there are a number of things retailers can do.

First, Watson suggested that retailers help shoppers understand that digestive health is not just about one product, but rather a comprehensive system of natural support. “High fiber, omega oils, probiotics and enzymes—all of these work together to ensure a solid foundation of optimal digestion and overall health, so these products should be displayed together and retailers should convey this message of total digestive care to the consumer,” she said.

Watson also suggested that it makes sense to highlight digestion issues at specific times throughout the year: January is appealing as it is not only after the holiday season, traditionally loaded with rich foods, but it is also the New Year, representing a fresh start in health; March and April might make for an interesting “Spring Renewal” display; or September and October could open the doors for a “Rejuvinating Fall” display focusing on the revitalizing benefits of many digestive formulas.

Health Foods Unlimited features digestive health products at the beginning of the year because of holiday eating and subsequent resolutions that follow.

“The holidays are met with toxins, everyone giving up on their diets and having too much alcohol and fats,” said McDonald, “and then at the first of the year they’re all saying ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’” But if retailers are smart, Watson added, they can use any slow month to feature digestive health products: “There are so many digestive issues, they could develop many themes over!” Trend Watch Mike Smith, vice president of Chino, CA-based Specialty Enzymes & Biochemicals Co., noticed growth in dairy formulas. “The fact is that milk and milk products are very complex foods containing not only lactose and casein, but also alpha and beta lactoglobulins, immunoglobulin and albumin, to name the most common,” he said. “Therefore, more complete formulas are of interest to the consumer.” 

Another trend Smith noticed is the use of enzymes as part of a cleanse or detox program. Specifically, Specialty Enzymes’ ClenzSEB features a blend of enzymes designed to be an effective stand-alone cleanse/detox formula, an additive to other cleanse products or part of a multi-product cleanse/detox program. ClenzSEB contains an array of enzymes including Protease, Peptizyme SP®, Amylase, Cellulase, Hemicellulase, Lipase and most important of all, Chitosanase. “Chitosanase is a special enzyme that breaks down chitin, a chief component of the cell wall of fungal organisms, like Candida albicans, an opportunistic yeast,” said the company in a statement. “ClenzSEB is also available with probiotics.” New to the probiotic front is Saccharomyces boulardii, a beneficial probiotic yeast shown to be extremely helpful as an immune support product, as well, according to Watson. 

“Another important nutrient, which isn’t new but that retailers for the most part do not use as much, is the amino acid L-glutamine,” she said. “Combined with gamma oryzanol, it helps prevent damage to the lining of the gut. It’s important, too, to have the right dosage of L-glutamine, since science has proven if the gut is injured (inflamed), the body will use Lglutamine first (if it is available) to repair itself. The dosage has to be high—a minimum of 5,000mg of glutamine on an empty stomach—to do any good.

This information really needs to be communicated; L-glutamine is so healing, and people see an instant difference when taking it,” Watson added. But one category newcomer was cited considerably as a rising star in the digestive arena: prebiotics. “Retailers and consumers can expect to see prebiotics, like fructooligosaccharides or Jerusalem artichoke, added to many supplements in 2010 and beyond,” said Umentum.

But no matter what direction a retailer chooses to take in his or her recommendations— be it enzymes, probiotics or any of the other digestive health products on the market—Watson offered a piece of advice that applies to all: “We would like to see the retailer do more with educating the consumer about how critical it is for the digestive tract to be at optimal health before going to any other solution in the store. If they do not do this, we simply become the symptom solution—just like the pharmaceutical industry.”

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