While some progress has been made in reversing the generations-long trend of not eating enough fiber, the lack of a healthful balance of beneficial microflora continues to be an issue for most Americans. The failure to fully recognize the need for a healthy diet to include support of a healthy digestive system brought processors to the importance of gut health decades later than in Europe and Asia. But, they have since demonstrated a powerful ambition to catch up.

According to the National Digestive Diseases Infor-mation Clearinghouse, 60-70 million Americans struggle with gastrointestinal distress, digestive diseases or conditions that affect the digestive system. These con-ditions can include anything from constipation, heartburn and hemorrhoids to irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, gallstones, ulcers and inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn’s.

A combination of global influences from more “body-aware” cultures and increased nutritional education and awareness has brought to the forefront the importance of digestive health to overall health and immunity.

A wealth of scientific research on ingredients for digestive health exists and continues to propel the targeted health and wellness foods industry with more gusto than ever. In fact, digestive health ranks as the top trend in the health and nutrition segment for the fourth consecutive year.

The demand for “better” digestive health is further driven by contemporary lifestyle choices that include limited physical activity and the increased prevalence of stress, alcohol, antibiotics and numerous over-the-counter  medications. (Some of these, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs found in common pain relievers, further contribute to the deterioration of the gastrointestinal lining.) This confluence is an open invitation to the food industry for products that condition the GI tract and help restore regularity and immunity for optimal health and performance.

Live Aid

The concept of probiotics—for digestive health—is a simple one: Naturally occurring gut microbiota aid in digestion and absorption of nutrients and play a role in the body’s immune defenses. When the system of natural gut flora is damaged, say by use of antibiotics or by disease-causing bacteria, the result is gas, bloating, abdominal cramping and diarrhea. The addition of probiotics—as supplements or via foods and beverages—can serve as a substitute until the natural gut flora can return. Today, some probiotic strains are designed specifically to counter the negative results of taking antibiotics.

Have the Guts?

Have the Guts




Gut health research “wants you!” Indicative of the geometric leap in interest and research into the trillions of friendly bacteria and other microbes in the human body and the environment, experts have taken gut science into the 21st century. They teamed up across institutions and disciplines to create the American Gut Project (AGP), an open access-style study of gastrointestinal microflora.

Founded by Robert Knight, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado at Boulder, one of the lead scientists on the Human Gut Microbiome Initiative, and noted bioanthropologist Jeff Leach, M.Sc., (pictured above) founder of the Human Food Project, the AGP lead team also includes University of Illinois animal sciences professor Kelly Swanson, Ph.D. The AGP wants to know about microbes in children and pets, as well. The team has enlisted scientists from several universities around the country.

For those taking part in the project, the scientists will sequence and analyze the data from kits provided to the participants. “With the number of subjects and diversity of ages, backgrounds and lifestyles we can encompass in American Gut, we will be able to make progress in a way that is difficult with smaller, more targeted studies on individual diseases or diets,” write the project leaders.

They also note it will be possible to compare a subset of the results to the microbes living in people’s houses and genetic profiles of some of the sampled subjects. “All human-subject aspects of the project have been approved by the Institutional Review Board at the University of Colorado, and all animal aspects by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee,” the team stresses.

The goal is to “unravel the microbial diversity that is the American Gut (and mouth and skin)” and generate substantial information on the human digestive microbiome, plus stimulate more research on the connectivity between digestive health and overall health and well-being. Participants are being sought through a page set up on IndieGoGo (www.indiegogo.com/americangut), and all data, according to the site, “will be open-source and included as part of the Earth Microbiome Project (EMP), which is a massively collaborative international study aimed at systematically characterizing microbial life on earth.”-

“For millennia, people have reached for probiotics for their digestive-health benefits, but only recently has science contributed evidence on how they work with repeatability in consistency,” says S.K. Dash, Ph.D., adjunct professor at South Dakota State University and a leader in probiotic research for more than three decades.

Noting the symbiotic relationship between humans and their microbiota, Dash adds, “Just as various breeds of dogs present various attributes and abilities, the specific strains [of dietary bacteria] confer specific functional qualities as probiotics. Critical techniques for commercial production and handling of the probiotic organisms further characterize the func-tionality and performance of these probiotics.”

The long history of including good bacteria in the diet appears most commonly in the form of fermented milk products (e.g., unpasteurized cheeses, yogurt or kefir), or certain pickled or fermented vegetables (e.g., kimchi). Food manufacturers and suppliers face unique challenges in that probiotics are live organisms and, thus, are highly sensitive to the environment. They are easily weakened or destroyed by a variety of factors, including heat, moisture, pH, and other chemical and environmental parameters.

Recent advances in technology are helping probiotics withstand these conditions to deliver the functionality consumers seek. Surveys have shown nearly nine in 10 U.S. consumers are now not only savvy to digestive health, they are actively interested in foods and beverages that improve it. The food industry has been engaging with ingredient makers of these new strains of hardier microbes in order to design products in forms (such as oatmeal and coffee) that complement established daily routines and resonate with consumer lifestyles. A veritable white space exists for food and beverage brands to fill.

Several years ago, Attune Foods Inc. launched its line of non-GMO Attune chocolate bars with probiotics. The dark chocolate coating has 68% cocoa content and is a dairy-free, probiotic bar with inulin to feed its 6.1 billion probiotic cultures, including Bifidobacterium lactis HN019, Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM and Lactobacillus casei LC-11.

Tipton Mills enables a daily dose of probiotics through its coffee line enriched with probiotics that can survive heat, cold, dryness and other conditions that destroy most probiotics. Tipton Mills has incorporated probiotics into a range of applications, including chai lattes, lattes, cappuccinos, teas in various flavors, high-protein shakes and smoothies, so consumers can have the benefit of probiotics in whatever they enjoy on a daily basis. Adding probiotics to coffee and tea seems like a slam-dunk, especially since they are two largest selling beverages in the world. So, although yogurt and dairy are still the leading applications for probiotics, the ingredient is expanding to other categories at rapid pace.

Dairy-free, juice-based beverages proved one of the biggest probiotics categories to break out in recent years. NextFoods Inc.’s Goodbelly line of probiotic-rich beverages and shots have enjoyed impressive success, as well as having helped introduce consumers to the concept of customized bacteria culture strains by pinning some of its marketing strategy around its proprietary strain, Lactobacillus plantarum299v. Not only are other companies zeroing in on this concept, ingredient makers, too, are deep into research discovering and developing new strains of friendly bacteria.

PRE Beverage Co. also makes dairy-free juices and drink mixes with probiotics and prebiotics, such as inulin and FOS (fructo-oligo-saccharides), separately and together, to help consumers build the foundation of gut health and immunity. The prebiotic-enriched PRE beverages are sweetened with cane sugar or stevia leaf extract and are designed to deliver 3.5g of prebiotics per bottle.

It is important to note that the benefits of probiotic supplementation persist even after supplementation has stopped. This is a result of improved gut barrier function from the probiotic infusion. A multicenter study of 141 children with functional abdominal pain and who were given Lactobacillus GG (LGG) or placebo, twice daily for eight weeks, and followed for an additional eight weeks, showed a significant decrease in the frequency and severity of abdominal pain compared to the placebo group. The beneficial effects persisted long after the supplementation had ceased.

Advances in probiotic processing technologies have opened the opportunity for the beneficial probiotic bacterium to be paired with prebiotics in products well beyond the dairy aisle. Naked Pizza, the Chicago-based national pizza chain, has a new frozen pizza line boasting pizza with pre- and probiotics. The patented spore-forming probiotic strain can withstand the extreme temperature changes of freezing and baking that the pizza undergoes, yet it delivers the health benefits of the probiotic to the consumer.

Fiber: Food for Probiotics

Like any critters, for probiotics to function, they must eat. Grandmothers were spot-on, when they insisted their families consume fiber-rich foods every day and at every meal. The fact that fiber maintains basic gastrointestinal health by acting as a bulker and a laxative still is its most popular benefit, but science has uncovered many links between high-fiber diets and a long list of health-and-wellness benefits beyond those simple functions.

Many functions of biochemical management have been attributed to the actions of various fibers and fiber-like compounds on a molecular and chemical level. These include satiety, hunger and weight control; heart health; immune system support; modulation of sugar and lipid levels in the blood; mineral absorption and bone health; and cancer prevention.

While probiotics are important for digestive health, fiber continues to be the most recognized and sought-after ingredient for digestive health. Soluble polydextrose fibers have prebiotic function by virtue of their ability to improve levels of positive microflora in the GI tract and reduce negative bacteria. For formulators, polydextrose is available in several grades for a fiber advantage without affecting the taste, texture or clarity of a beverage.

But, not all fibers are alike. Fibers show a range of properties, in terms of water solubility, viscosity and fermentability, the combination of which expresses their unique functionality and health benefits. It is important that product developers learn to identify the right combination of properties that bestow the desired health benefits to consumers, without detrimentally affecting their enjoyment experience. Ingredient makers recognize this and offer services in helping to develop products with such special functional combinations in mind.

The Fiber Solution

How a dietary fiber interacts with water categorizes it as soluble or insoluble and is also fundamental to many of its functional and physiological properties. When insoluble dietary fibers absorb water, their expansion creates “bulk” in the gastrointestinal tract. Bulk helps speed transit through and out of the body, and also helps prevent or alleviate constipation. By lowering internal stress on the colon, insoluble fibers also reduce the incidence of associated conditions, such as diverticulitis.

From a processing standpoint, insoluble dietary fibers, primarily cellulose, are generally crude and are difficult to work with because of their negative influence on the sensory properties of the finished products. While reducing the particle size of the fiber down to the 10-20 micron range can help minimize grittiness and the cardboard-like texture, it is important to note the greater water-binding capacity from the increased surface area. Too little water in the formula tends to render the product dry and hard, while excess can cause the product to spoil more quickly.

Soluble dietary fibers provide little “bulk,” and regardless of whether low or high in viscosity, affect intestinal health positively by fostering the growth of beneficial bacterial. The positive effect on the colonic environment also influences absorption of other nutrients that are otherwise not absorbed in the small intestine. Although there is solid scientific evidence for the secondary influences of soluble fiber on blood sugar, insulin, fat deposition and blood lipids, including triglycerides and cholesterol, they do not apply universally to every fiber.

Animal and human feeding studies demonstrate that soluble non-viscous dietary fibers, such as digestion-resistant maltodextrin, can help maintain intestinal regularity and attenuate blood glucose levels. Recent studies show that digestion-resistant maltodextrin, as part of a meal, can help attenuate and retain healthy serum triglycerides and help extend the feeling of satiety, so people feel fuller for longer durations.

Prebiotic Function

Fibers are classified as prebiotics when they stimulate the growth and metabolism of protective bacteria in the GI tract  and restore its normal ecology. But,

Nuts Take Part

While names such as inulin and oligosaccharides on product labels might be trendy, almonds offer a friendly prebiotic to fortify probiotic products. Research shows that finely ground almonds, just 30g of which provides 3.5g of fiber, can increase bacterial populations. In fact, almonds have been found to have a significantly higher prebiotic index (4.43) than that found for the commercial prebiotic fructo-oligosaccharides (4.08).

prebiotic fiber on a food label is often overcast by gastric distress and bloating, which can be avoided by selecting slowly fermenting fibers. Wheat aleurone—the high-fiber and antioxidant-rich covering of the wheat kernel—ferments slowly in the colon, because the soluble prebiotic fibers, arabinoxylan and beta-glucan, are embedded in its cell structure, and their inaccessibility does not result in “flash fermentation” and intestinal discomfort.

Experts have determined wheat aleurone can be combined with the soluble oligosaccharide inulin to slow digestion. As a bonus, the well-tolerated aleurone offers tocopherols (vitamin E), vitamins B1, B3, B9; and the minerals magnesium, phosphorous, calcium, zinc and iron. It also is a significant source of the antioxidant mineral selenium. These nutrients have positive benefits for overall healthy function, including digestion.

Wheat aleurone can be added inexpensively to bakery items (including risen breads) and to beverages, hot cereals and pet food without negatively affecting the final product’s appearance or taste. The ingredient itself has a mild flavor, soft texture and light color. A key attribute of aleurone is that it can withstand digestion in the gut, arrive intact in the colon and nourish beneficial probiotic bacteria.

Marketers love the fact that aleurone, albeit not a whole grain, contains 45% dietary fiber. The ingredient may be used to create a nutritional profile on par with whole-wheat bread, yet with a lighter crumb and milder flavor via just 20% substitution of refined flour in a typical white-bread formula.

Drinking Fiber

Consumers’ desire for healthy beverages as a natural remedy for all that ails their gut is helped considerably by the number of clear fibers with clinically substantiated health benefits. Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) are another such prebiotic ingredient clinically proven to support immune health. They’re suitable for shelf-stable, low-pH beverages that seek a fiber claim alongside their probiotic/digestive health positioning.

Inulin, as described above, is a prebiotic oligosaccharide. These are fiber-like glucose chains that act like soluble fiber. Inulin works well with probiotic beverages, supporting the natural, healthful bacteria in the lower GI tract. But, it also acts as a sweetener, due to a mild, sweet taste—about a tenth as sweet as sucrose—and adds to the drinking experience with a thin viscosity, even at the level used to attain designation as an excellent source of fiber. Inulin is sensitive to pH and, while robust in refrigerated, low-pH beverages such as juices, it degrades over time in shelf-stable, low-pH beverages.

In addition to being invisible, inulin can withstand heat processing and is ideal in neutral-pH beverages, such as smoothies and shakes. For marketers of products for adolescents and peri-menopausal women, inulin can aid in calcium absorption and weight management, too.

The OatWorks beverage company has taken advantage of oat fiber beta-glucans in its line of all-natural fruit smoothies for digestive health. Beta-glucans are a natural, soluble prebiotic fiber that adds to the viscosity and texture of a beverage, without changing the flavor. Its heat stability is also well suited for juice beverages, smoothies, shakes and dairy drinks. U.S. consumers already exhibit strong awareness that oats are good for them, and in adequate quantities, helpful for heart health and cholesterol reduction. The addition of oats has another benefit: the claim that it reduces the postprandial glycemic response, a boon for those who struggle with glucose management.

Fiber by the Numbers

The addition of probiotics and prebiotics aids in immunomodulation, which is the key to a healthy immune system and positive support of the digestive system. Recent studies show a healthy digestive system has benefits beyond traditional digestive complaints. Healthy digestive function also lends credibility to consumer expectations: Recent data from SPINS show digestive health product sales are up 14.4% in natural retail channels, and up 18.5% in conventional food/drug/mass markets over the last year (in the 52 weeks ending October 9, 2012). In addition, sales of immune-health products are up 7.3% in natural stores, and up 6.6% in conventional outlets, according to the same SPINS data. The SPINS data also reveal sales of probiotics specifically are up an astonishing 43% in mass markets and 13.7% in natural channels.

A well-running digestive system provides the foundation for overall health and wellness—for men, women, children and babies. The intricate physiology encompasses oral health, through the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, liver and pancreas, and ultimately the colon. It affects all aspects of health: Keeping a gut healthy is really the key to overall health.