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digestive health

Gutting it out

Alternative ingredients, tasty flavors and specific formulations are driving digestive health.
Debby Garbato

Stress, overindulgence in alcohol and a growing fast food market are leading to more than heart disease and wider waist lines. They are key factors in engendering Americans to seek improved—and more specific—digestive health products. This ongoing quest is creating new opportunities in a category that Circana pegs at $5.3 billion.

For the calendar year ending December 31, 2023, digestive health sales increased 3.9%, Circana said, a modest but significant increase in the otherwise mature CPG world. Growth was led by an influx of products featuring alternative ingredients, better flavors and specific formulations targeting women’s health and other issues. A wider array of pre-, post- and probiotics also contributed.

“The digestive health category is mature but there’s definitely pockets of opportunity,” said Lisa Oliveira, senior brand manager, Microbiome at i-Health Inc. “Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of food triggers. But at the end of the day, people eat what they want.”

The U.S. fast food industry is expected to grow from $130 billion-plus today to $180 billion in 2032, Precedence Research found. And a Gallup Poll found that 19% of adults overindulge in alcohol.

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mason vitamins

Pre- Post- and Probiotics

Probiotics have come to play an important role in digestive health. The term was first coined by bacteriologist Werner Kollath in the 1950s. Since then, consumers’ understanding of gut health’s role in overall wellness has grown, creating a market that now includes myriad probiotics along with pre-and post-biotics. Products are popular among women. The probiotics market is valued at $872 million, with a CAGR of 3.4% over the past few years, said Circana.

“There’s broader awareness of how gut health runs everything,” said Chuck Tacl, senior advisor of customers and trade relations, Mason Vitamins. “This is changing how digestive health is viewed.”

[Read more: HRG’s five notable products from May 2024]

Education is crucial, with social media, manufacturers’ websites and other mediums helping people better understand this complex segment. “Probiotics is probably one of the most
complicated subcategories because there’s multiple strains and each does something different, addressing anything from gas to immunity,” noted Tacl.

This has prompted suppliers to create products addressing specific conditions like digestion, constipation and menopause. Some contain numerous ingredients, including probiotics, pre- and post-biotics. “Some carry seven strains, some have 13,” added Tacl. “Products have everything but the kitchen sink or are very specific.”

ADM/Protexin’s probiotics also have multiple benefits, the brand said. Its Bio-Kult Everyday contains 14 strains of probiotics from various genera. People with irritable bowel syndrome in particular have benefitted, said Kim Plaza, senior technical advisor at ADM/Protexin. “In one clinical trial, a third of subjects were symptom-free after four months,” she added. “Probiotics is one of the fastest growing segments of supplements.”


Plaza also cited strong interest in bacteriophages and products combining pre-, post- and probiotics. “Postbiotics are becoming popular due to growing evidence for efficacy in conditions like supporting metabolic health. Bacteriophages tend to be more specific and used for acute illness, particularly after consuming food or drink where a bacterial, viral or pathogen-causing illness has occurred.”

Plaza noted the importance of social media in communicating with customers. “Many products are being advertised on this platform, with the benefit of consumers being able to interact directly with the company and retailers,” she said. “Retailers may have a close relationship with consumers, especially if they provide diet, lifestyle and personalized advice.” 

Another company, i-Health Inc., has expanded its assortment of women’s formulas under its Culturelle brand, including probiotics for urinary tract health and prebiotics for vaginal health. “While women’s SKUs have been around awhile, they’re growing in traction,” said Oliveira. “The gut is the core of health.”

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On the educational front, i-Health’s articles on WebMD highlight specific products, said Oliveira. It also offers videos featuring health care professionals. On social media, it leverages influencers to help promote adults’ and children’s products. She also hopes to offer more information at point-of-purchase. “Education is key,” she added.

Natural and Organic

Following in the footsteps of food and beverages, some digestive health products contain clean, natural or organic ingredients. Launched last year, Wonderbelly specializes in FDA-approved OTC medicines with the same active ingredients as leading brands. But its clean, inactive ingredients are vegan and GMO- and paraben-free.

“Over the past 15 years, there’s been a whole industry of alternative substances that evolved into the supplement industry we know today,” said Wonderbelly co-founder Noah Kraft. “But there’s certain OTC brands that have dominated the market because they work. We try to create OTC medicines not created by big pharma, are FDA approved and regulated while having many things consumers seek in the supplement space, like non-GMO, vegan and paraben free.”

[Read more: Building resistance to sales declines]

Co-founder Lucas Kraft noted that unlike supplements, OTC medicines must meet strict FDA guidelines. “Some supplements may be effective but aren’t held to the same standard. We’re on the same aisle as Advil.”

Wonderbelly’s first product is part of the $2.5 billion antacid segment, the largest digestive health category with a market share of 47.33% for the 2023 calendar year, said Circana. Wonderbelly’s antacid uses calcium carbonate as an active ingredient, just like Tums, said Lucas Kraft. But inactive ingredients include corn starch, natural flavor, sucrose, vegetable cellulose and vegetable magnesium stearate.

Its newest product, Bloat + Gas Relief, contains simethicone as an active ingredient, as does Gas X. Inactive ingredients include calcium carbonate, calcium phosphate, maltose, silicon dioxide, starch and vegetable magnesium stearate.

“The digestive health category is mature but there’s definitely pockets of opportunity. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of food triggers. But at the end of the day, people eat what they want.”
— Lisa Oliveira, senior brand manager, Microbiome, i-Health Inc.

Suggested retail price is $11.99, making products 30% to 40% more than other brands, said Noah Kraft. “But our customer is already picking the branded option [as opposed to private labels] because they’re not price sensitive,” he added.

Lifelab Health also takes a natural approach, producing only USDA-certified organic products. President Lou Machin said USDA regulations are “stricter than ever,” making it difficult for companies to enter this space. “USDA organic has gotten much tougher.” 

But organic products are very popular. “Organic continues growing in food and HBC,” Machin added. “Consumers want it as long as they’re not paying too much. There are lots of toxic stuff out there. People want cleaner, healthier products.”

Lifelab’s psyllium brand contains fiber and is sugar free. Benefits include regularity, toxins removal and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Machin noted that psyllium is priced “slightly lower” than Metamucil. And Lifelab recently introduced NuFiber Daily Probiotic Supplement, which is made with corn not wheat. NuFiber is gluten and sugar free.

Sweetening Up Laxatives

Soft chews and gummies have come to play a major role in supplements and digestive health. But they are particularly important in laxatives where they make an unpleasant category “more approachable,” said Samuel Morisse, zone head North America at Sanofi Consumer Healthcare, marketer of DulcoLax. “There’s a strong negative stigma around laxatives and bowel movements. Gummies are something you know and can relate to. They’re gentler in perception.”

DulcoLax launched soft chews two years ago and gummies a year ago. Some other DulcoLax products come in tablet and suppository form.

DulcoLax connects and educates consumers in several ways. On its website, people can look up symptoms and solutions and contact a product advisor with questions. DulcoLax also runs ads on Amazon. On social media, DulcoLax partnered with medical professionals and macro influencer Jeannie Mai to educate consumers but also to “drive a conversation in an open way” around constipation, said Morisse. “There’s much conversation around trying to destigmatize the category. Social media has increased awareness.”

Strategies appear to be working. According to Circana, the $1.9 billion laxatives segment grew 6.8% during the 2023 calendar year. After antacids, it is the second largest digestive health category with a market share of about 3%. 

Growth of the entire digestive health segment should be ongoing, with consumers’ poor health habits some of the key factors feeding that growth. At the same time, people continue to become more educated about this segment.

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