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A Gut Feeling

Digestive Health Digestive Health
Phase 2

Probiotics and enzymes continue to dominate the natural digestive health market.

A healthy digestive system is a vital component of general health and the immune system overall. Long-term digestion issues run the gamut from gluten-sensitivities to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastro-esophageal reflux disease, peptic ulcer disease and diverticular disease, while short-term issues include constipation and bloating. Symptoms from these various disorders can differ in type, scope and severity, but they can be very uncomfortable to the point of interfering with everyday life. For those with dietary sensitivities, it can be challenging to go to the grocery store or dine out a restaurant.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 60 to 70 million Americans are affected by all categories of digestive diseases. In 2010, this resulted in 48.3 million ambulatory care visits and 21.7 million hospitalizations.

In recent years, the already substantial market for natural products to support digestive health has grown even more, with probiotics and enzymes leading the way. “Probiotics have been widely accepted, or adopted, by consumers and are now sold in almost every grocery or health store outlet in the country. While a healthy digestive system starts with eating a healthy whole-food based diet, consumers are turning towards supplements for extra support, whether that be probiotics, fiber, or enzymes, etc.,” said Corey Friese, vice president of product development and compliance at the Illinois-based Vital Proteins.

And there is no shortage of consumers in this product category. “With the aging Baby Boomer population, as well as the very nature of the common American diet, digestive challenges are front and center,” said Ryan Sensenbrenner, director of marketing for the Florida manufacturer, Enzymedica.

Tina Anderson, CEO and co-founder of Just Thrive, a manufacturing company in Illinois, said that gut health is “ground zero” for overall wellness.

“Probiotics typically appeal to those with digestive issues, but as more and more research is being done, consumers are learning just how critical gut health is to virtually every aspect of our physical and mental well-being. As a result, the consumer group continues to grow dramatically,” said Anderson.

Consumer Trends

For a family of six, all of whom have specific dietary sensitivities, grocery shopping was nothing short of challenging, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. Owners Jeff and Suzanne Weiner established Eden’s Market in 2009; the market is located in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. “We cater to people just like us, who follow a gluten-free lifestyle as well as those who have other special dietary requirements,” said Suzanne Weiner. “We have many dairy-free, nut-free, vegetarian and vegan options.” She also carries probiotics, digestive enzymes and other “gut-specific” items, along with specialty food and drinks, such as kombucha teas and raw fermented foods.

This jibes with Friese’s observation that consumers are utilizing food as medicine.

“People like to get functional benefits from food, and there are many to choose from when it comes to digestive health. Kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut and other fermented foods provide beneficial bacteria for our guts. Whole foods such as vegetables and whole-grains provide much needed soluble and insoluble fiber for our digestive tracts. Bone broth, or other collagen-containing proteins are becoming popular, even to those outside of the Paleo community,” he said.

As for supplements, Weiner noticed that both probiotics and prebiotics are trending, calling prebiotics “… a fancy name for food to feed the good bacteria.” She said customers want quality items that make a noticeable difference in how they feel at a reasonable price point, though they are willing to pay more for a product that works than a drugstore brand that does not.

Another trend is that consumers are looking for probiotics that are shelf-stable, said Jay Levy, director of sales at Wakunaga USA in California.

Tried and True Plus New

Many manufacturers are relying on old formulations because they’ve proven to be bestsellers, though some are releasing new products to supplement already successful lines.

Probiotics are a well-established product in the natural digestive sector.

Anderson said that bacillus spore-based probiotics are “all the rage” in the digestive health category, as consumers are beginning to understand that spore-based probiotics survive the gastric system naturally. Just Thrive Probiotic & Antioxidant, a 100 percent spore-based product, is the company’s bestseller. Later this year, the company will launch a liquid probiotic as well as a precision prebiotic.

Another spore-based probiotic is manufactured by Vital Proteins.

“We incorporate a very beneficial probiotic, bacillus coagulans, into a select line of our products. They are ‘spore-forming’ probiotics, meaning they do not ‘come alive’ until they are in an optimal environment, such as our digestive system. This makes them more resilient and provides better survivability in the stomach,” said Friese.

Many of the other products manufactured by Vital Proteins contain collagen peptides or beef gelatin to support digestive health. “Collagen contains a unique amino acid profile, with high levels of glycine, proline and glutamine, compared to other proteins. These amino acids are building blocks of many of our tissues, including the digestive tract,” added Friese.

An established product line by Texas-based Essential Formulas is Dr. Ohhira’s Probiotics. What sets it apart is its manufacturing process, which is produced using a three-year fermentation process, explained Science and Research Director, Ross Pelton, RPh, PhD, CCN. “Dozens of organically grown foods are shredded and added to the fermentation vats, along with 12 strains of probiotic bacteria. The bacteria are then allowed to ferment/digest the foods for three years. During this time, the bacteria produce a wide range of compounds we refer to as post-biotic metabolites,” he said.

Another manufacturer of probiotics, Wakunaga’s bestselling digestive health supplement is its original Kyo-Dophilus formula, first introduced 30 years ago. “The beneficial bacteria in Kyo-Dophilus are made from human probiotic strains, which encourage ideal colonization in the intestine. They are also heat and acid resistant, dairy free and shelf stable at room temperature,” said Levy, who added that it is common for probiotic supplements to contain 50 billion or more organisms in each dose.

“Regardless of the number of bacteria listed on the labels, what really matters is viability. Unfortunately, not all probiotic manufacturers guarantee that the bacteria in their products are live and viable at the time of consumption. Without this type of assurance, it’s hard to tell exactly how many bacteria cells, if any, are alive when you swallow your supplement. It’s also important to make sure your supplement is resistant to stomach acid. This will ensure that the bacteria will survive the journey through the stomach and into the small intestines,” he cautioned.

In addition to probiotics, enzymes are becoming more widely used.

“We’re finding every day that consumers are recognizing the importance of enzymes more and more, and believe that they offer next-generation benefits for the market today,” said Enzymedica’s Sensenbrenner. Enzymedica manufactures enzyme-based products, including their bestselling Digest Gold, as well as products that combine enzymes with herbal ingredients, such as Acid Soothe. In February, the company launched a new Betaine HCl formula. “Unlike other products on the market that tend to be very harsh, ours is incredibly gentle. It combines high-potency Betaine HCl with gentle acid-stable enzymes, and Mucosave, which provides a protective barrier for the stomach lining,” said Sensenbrenner. The company also introduced a new Digest Chewable.

However, enzymes are not new. American Laboratories in Nebraska has been manufacturing digestive enzymes for more than 50 years.

A mainstay in the digestive health industry, American Laboratories has had success with its three original products, the animal-sourced, enzyme-based Pancreatin, Pepsin and Ox Bile, to support indigestion and gluten intolerance.

“At American Laboratories, we have the ability to formulate custom enzyme blends to be utilized in a variety of applications. One blend in particular, Glyprozyme, is crafted to help with gluten digestion. It contains a specific amount of oxidase, amylase and protease enzymes that work together to hydrolyze the gluten protein chain,” said Outside Sales Representative Ethan Renner.

Other products besides probiotics and enzymes are becoming popular.

Since 2014, Biomic Sciences, LLC in Virginia has manufactured Restore liquid supplement, which Vice President of Product Information, Barbara Brand, said is a “… new generation, soil-derived supplement that promotes an optimal gut environment.” She said it is neither a probiotic nor a prebiotic but a carbon-rich alkaline liquid comprised of Terrahydrite.

“Restore is designed to balance gut health, support respiratory wellness, combat environmental exposures, promote immune function, enhance mental clarity and promote hydration. It is naturally gluten free,” said Brand.

This all dovetails with what Brand said is the company’s tagline: “Complete well-being begins in the gut.”

Recently, the company introduced Magic Dirt Water, packaged and marketed for kids, but contains the same formula as what is in Restore.

Weiner has begun carrying Restore at Eden’s Market, as well as Gluten-Go, a digestive enzyme that specifically targets gluten to help with cross-contamination issues. Other bestsellers in the digestive health category are MegaFlora refrigerated probiotics, as well as non-refrigerated Sedona Labs probiotics. “We encourage our customers to take a supplement regime that covers the basics for good immune system health, which includes a multi-strain moderate count probiotic in addition to a multivitamin, omegas and any personal issue-specific item,” said Weiner.

Employing principles of ayurveda, an ancient holistic healing system, the manufacturing company, Himalaya, based in both Texas and India, reported that its bestselling digestive health supplement is its ComfortCleanse to aid in constipation. “Ginger and licorice are among the most restorative herbs ayurveda suggests. Both are found in ComfortCleanse and have been used for millennia to promote wellness from stomach to colon by promoting the immune system’s protective barrier and encouraging regular elimination without addictive laxatives,” said Omar Cruz, vice president of botanical science. Another product by Himalaya to support intestinal balance is FlorAvani, containing ginger, pepper and other unique herbs.

Changes/Market Trends

Several factors have contributed to the upsurge in the market, including the media spotlight on digestive health, especially with celebrities going public about their own digestive health struggles, said Weiner.

Friese added that this uptick in consumer awareness about gut health helps drive demand and innovation.

Other factors that have impacted the market, said Pelton, are the prevalence of processed and fast food, resulting in poor diets, as well as the widespread prevalence of environmental toxins.

“One of the new trends we’ve been watching closely is an interest in clean label. We’ve partnered with the Clean Label Project as the first supplement brand to be certified as being clean. This means that our products have been tested for a wide array of contaminants, including heavy metals, pesticides and antibiotic residues. The first products in this program were Digest Gold, Digest and Digest Basic, as well as our Purify suite of cleanse and detox formulas,” said Sensenbrenner.

Sensenbrenner said he believes the market will continue to climb, particularly as more and more people develop an awareness of the importance of digestive health and the role it plays in the immune system.

Studies and Research

The market is also affected by the results of studies, and consumers are paying closer attention; that is why many manufacturers choose to publicize research on their products.

“Stores are beginning to demand products that are supported by research and sound science,” said Anderson, adding that the Just Thrive probiotics have been supported by peer-reviewed research. “As far as we know, we are the only company conducting double-blind human clinical trials on probiotics.” The company also has nine other clinical trials going on concerning the effect of its product on leaky gut syndrome.

Brand said that her company, Biomic Sciences, has conducted its own research regarding the correlation between the immune system and digestive health. They looked at the effects of gliadin, a component of gluten and glyphosate, an active ingredient in some herbicides, on the gut lining and have published their findings in two peer-reviewed journals.

The effect of Wakunaga’s Kyo-Dophilus on allergies recently was studied, and earlier studies looked at how the specific combination of probiotics in that product helped to maintain digestive health and parts of the immune system.

Friese said that advancement in the digestive health field is continuing to evolve, with more effective and stable strains being discovered, as well as new delivery systems. “Enzymes are also a category with great innovation, with many branded ingredients touting multi-functional benefits that go beyond being only a digestive health supplement,” he said. He believes that making products more personalized and convenient will be the target of innovation in the future.

Pelton said that his company is very interested in the emerging field of post-biotic metabolites. “These are the compounds that probiotic bacteria produce in the gut. Research into these probiotic-produced compounds (post-biotic metabolites) will be the next phase of the microbiome revolution. Now, research primarily focuses on trying to name various new strains of probiotic bacteria and identifying their genome. But in the future, the microbiome revolution will focus more on identifying the compounds that various strains of probiotic produce, and learning the health-regulating functions of these compounds,” predicted Pelton.

Customer Education

Sharing research studies is one way to educate the end consumer about what to expect from a digestive health product, an important goal for both retailers and manufacturers.

“We offer highlights from our clinical trials online so staff and consumers can educate themselves to the promise of our product line,” said Cruz.

Education is king, said Friese, adding that product demos can be very effective as it allows one-on-one conversations with customers. “We also believe in educating our sales representatives, which in turn allows them to educate the supplement manager, or whole-body associate,” said Friese.

In a retail setting, samples go a long way toward making a sale. “I’m a huge proponent of getting samples for my customers to try first and will not sell something I myself or a truest source hasn’t tried,” said Weiner, adding that they hold small seminars with guest speakers two or three times per year.

As Just Thrive is focused on research and education, the company said that it, too, helps educate retailers with product literature and results of studies. “Spend time on education with store employees and then consumers. Education is key to promoting high quality products that work, which in turn keeps customers coming back into their stores. If consumers find products that work, they keep coming back,” Anderson advised.


To help market and merchandise their products to the end consumer, many manufacturers offer support to their retail partners. For example, Biomic Sciences provides “… training, in-store presentations, point-of-purchase displays with a minimum purchase, and consumer brochures,” said Brand.

At Eden’s Market, the Weiners distribute POS brochures and information from the companies whose products they stock. “I have sections in my store that are condition-specific and then sometimes will cross-promote items that are multifunctional,” said Weiner, adding that she also relies on electronic communication and social media for updates.

One challenge reported by Weiner is that some consumers will ask for products recommended by physicians or something that they see on television. But the staff makes it a point to get to know the customer and their specific needs to help them hone in on the right products. “We currently have several local health care practitioners who refer their patients to us for supplements over prescriptions because they trust our knowledge on the subject,” said Weiner.

Friese agreed that the personal touch, the face-to-face interaction with customers at brick-and-mortar stores, is one of the most effective merchandising tactics, particularly in the age of online sales.

“We train all of our sales representatives to be product trainers and as such they are fully capable of supporting sales staff in stores through private of aisle trainings,” said Cruz.

In addition to samples, demos, training and literature, Essential Formulas also provides a “placement” guide to its retailers, recommending various sections in which its probiotic products should be placed within the store, such as among digestion products or in the cleansing section. VR

For More Information:
American Laboratories, www.americanlaboratories.com
Biomic Sciences, www.shop.restore4life.com
Enzymedica, www.enzymedica.com
Essential Formulas, www.essentialformulas.com
Himalaya USA, www.himalayausa.com
Just Thrive, www.thriveprobiotic.com
Vital Proteins, www.vitalproteins.com
Wakanuga USA, www.kyolic.com

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