Digestive health grows as the gut-body connection gets attention

It’s all in your head, or maybe in your gut — or maybe both. 

Today’s digestive health aisle not only offers heartburn products, but everything from immune support to headache relief. And, as more research points to a connection between the gut microbiome and overall health, many manufacturers are focusing on products with probiotics, “friendly” bacteria that provide health benefits. 

The change in tactics is giving retailers an opportunity to drive additional sales in probiotics as a daily maintenance product as consumers shop for more than a solution for an upset stomach. 

According to Mintel, U.S. retail sales in the digestive health market were estimated to reach more than $5.1 billion in 2019, and many industry observers predict that new innovations will spur further sales gains in the coming years.

Much of that innovation is around probiotics. Products with probiotic claims are everywhere, according to Bob Richardson, director of customer and industry development at Clorox. The Oakland, Calif.-based company acquired digestive health brand Renew Life in 2016, following it up with the purchase of health-and-wellness company Nutranext and its Rainbow Light and Natural Vitality brands in 2018. “We are cautiously optimistic growth will start to return to the category,” he said. 

That growth will be led by Generation Z and millennials, Richardson said. These are consumers who seek personalized health solutions and who spend time online looking up information about specific probiotic strains and how many billion colony-forming units, or CFUs, they need. There also is still a place for the well-established products for heartburn and acid indigestion, as those are being sought by baby boomers who find themselves enduring these digestive issues more as they age. 

Others agreed that the excitement surrounding probiotics is boosting the digestive products category. “The growing evidence for probiotics and digestive health has become the catalyst for increased consumer interest,” said Kim Plaza, technical advisor at Doral, Fla.-based ADM Protexin. “Social media has exploded, with many people sharing their positive experiences of using commercial probiotic supplements for digestive health issues, as well as many conditions throughout the body.”

That includes a wide variety of conditions. Studies have indicated positive results for specific bacteria species and digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea, or IBS-D, and also for Parkinson’s Disease symptoms. Recent trials explored the microbiome-gut-brain axis, Plaza said, so now there is a focus on the application of probiotics for anxiety, depression and cognitive health. In the gut-brain range, last year Protexin launched Bio-Kult Migréa, which contains 14 multi-strains of probiotic bacteria that indicated promising results in a trial assessing their effect on chronic and episodic migraine.

Finding Other Benefits 
Immune support is on consumers’ minds right now, and they are looking at probiotics. Research posted on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website and on other sites indicates that the digestive area houses 70% of the cells that make up the immune system. “The news is really all about this emerging connection between probiotics and other aspects of health,” said David Kraus, senior brand manager for the adult line of Culturelle Probiotics at i-Health, a division of DSM in Cromwell, Conn. 

As more consumers learn about probiotics helping restore the healthy balance of good bacteria, they are making probiotics part of their daily health routines. “People are thinking a lot right now about ‘How can I boost my immune system?’” Kraus said. “Probiotics are potentially the new multivitamin.” 

Probiotics are getting attention as consumers become more educated about overall health. “One of the bigger trends, especially in probiotics, is the understanding of the total care approach, not only probiotics but prebiotics, which are food for the good bacteria,” said Jason Mitchell, founder and CEO of Probulin, based in Topeka, Kan. He added that there is a new focus on postbiotics, which are metabolites, or components that result from probiotic activity in the gut.

Probulin makes Total Care Probiotic, Daily Care Probiotic, My Little Bugs Total Care Probiotic for Kids, and other products. Probulin’s MAKTrek 3-D Probiotic Delivery System features a brown seaweed extract to provide a secondary barrier and protects the beneficial probiotic bacteria against damage from digestive fluids, such as stomach acid. “We call it the seaweed submarine,” he said.  

The brand posts short videos about the delivery system on its website. There also is information on the number of CFU a probiotic product should have, which Probulin noted is 10 to 20 billion. “It’s not necessarily true that more is better,” Mitchell said.

Education is crucial as consumers have only general awareness about probiotics’ benefits. “Consumers should know that by improving their digestion through their lifestyle choices and supplementation, they can also benefit in other areas like supporting their immune system and boosting their general wellness,” said Kimberly Vigliante, senior vice president of wholesale sales and marketing at Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based Piping Rock, which makes the Nature’s Truth brand. 

Vigliante said retailers can help demystify the segment by offering a variety of probiotic items that are clear in their benefits. Retailers also can merchandise probiotics not just in the digestive health section, but also in women’s health, immune support and at endcaps. “It instantly shifts the consumer mindset toward including these items into their immune season routine, which will ultimately drive incremental sales in the category,” Vigliante said. 

While many companies are delving into probiotics, one space that some manufacturers are looking into is digestive enzymes, which help break down food. 

“A lot of manufacturers are looking at digestive health as a good size growth opportunity,” said Chuck Tacl, vice president of sales at Miami Lakes, Fla.-based Mason Vitamins. “The digestive enzyme market is still fairly untapped and set to grow pretty dramatically in the next three to five years.” He said Mason Vitamins plans to launch several products, including digestive enzymes.

Looking to get into the digestive enzyme market is Friska, a new company founded by John Peine, a longtime Target merchandising executive who worked with a gastroenterologist to develop the line of 10 products that combine digestive enzymes, probiotics and benefits-focused botanicals to target such needs as complex carb digestion, immune support and sleep. 

“Friska was inspired by my personal desire to help others improve their health,” Peine said. “After experiencing my own health scare, I began researching enzymes and probiotic spores as a way to improve gut health.”

As with many other products in the supplement category, manufacturers are very aware that they cannot make certain claims about probiotics. “It’s important to note that probiotics do not cure or prevent disease, however, research has shown that some strains support digestive and immune health,” said Kim Shafer, CEO of Daily Body Restore in Wixom, Mich.

Battling Heartburn 
While probiotics are gaining attention, products that offer relief from indigestion still are essential. Heartburn is an especially common type of indigestion. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, more than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month. 

“While it’s a common issue for older people, it’s now become a growing problem for younger adults,” said MaryEllen Tefft, vice president of sales for food, drug and mass at Boiron USA, based in Newtown Square, Pa. 

Boiron’s homeopathic medicines contain plant-based and natural active ingredients, which are attractive to shoppers looking for natural alternatives in digestive products. Consumers also are looking for safe products, as the Food and Drug Administration in April had manufacturers withdraw all prescription and OTC ranitidine drugs from the market, part of an ongoing investigation of a contaminant known as N-Nitrosodimethylamine. 

Retailers can capitalize on current trends by offering both traditional and natural products as shoppers expect to find natural items in mainstream retailers. “If these consumers cannot find these products in their local retail outlet, there is a risk of losing them to other retailers or e-commerce,” Tefft said.

Stores need to make sure they allocate the right amount of shelf space and merchandise the category in a way that makes sense to shop, according to Joseph Juliano, vice president of marketing at Prestige Consumer Healthcare in Tarrytown, N.Y. Prestige offers a wide range of digestive brands, including Tagamet, Fleet laxative, Dramamine, and anti-gas brands Phazyme and Beano. 

“This includes better educational information for the category since we know there is still a fair amount of confusion as to which OTC remedies treat which symptoms,” he said.

Juliano also said that the digestive health category is driven by two different trends. One is the aging population and the increase in obesity, leading to digestive challenges and lifestyle-

related diseases. The other is consumer adoption of a more preventive approach to digestive health. 

“We believe these two very different trends are driving the more significant growth we are seeing in the digestive health category and expect both will continue to fuel growth moving forward,” Juliano said.