Here’s news that’s easy to digest. Despite some regulatory issues affecting health claims (particularly in Europe), new product activity shows there is clear global interest in new foods and drinks with digestive and/or gut health benefits. That said, most food and beverage manufacturers are embracing general health and wellness and they are relying consumer awareness of ingredients such as probiotics and fiber—and their related health benefits.

Digestive or gut health has been a key focus for product activity in functional and healthy foods for many years, initially driven by interest in probiotic dairy products in Europe. The US market for probiotics was slower to take off. It was not truly established until the mid-2000s, although there had previously been some activity in cereal products marketed for digestive health.

With tightening claims legislation (particularly in Europe), there has been something of a new product slowdown.  Companies are using softer claims and more general health and wellbeing positions. Nevertheless, 3.2% of the food and drinks launches recorded by Innova Market Insights carried digestive health claims of some kind in 2014, up from just 2.7% five years previously.  This indicates that there is still ongoing activity in the sector, particularly in the US, where the share rose from 3.3% to more than 3.6% during that period of time. For comparison, European Union (EU) launches using a digestive health positioning fell from 2.4% to 2.2% during the same period.

The dairy sector dominated globally, accounting for nearly 38% of digestive health launches, rising to just over 30% in the US and to more than 48% in the EU, but falling to less than a quarter in Asia. In Asia, baby foods were the main category featuring digestive health claims, accounting for more than 45% of the total, compared with 6% in the US, 16% in the EU and a global average of 24%. The beverages category comes next with 7% of global activity for hot and cold drinks, rising to 13.5% in the US, ahead of bakery and cereal products.

Dairy Dynamos

Probiotic yogurts came to the US mainstream market in early 2006 with Dannon’s national launch of the Activia spoonable probiotic brand. Activia promotes Dannon’s exclusive Bifidus regularis culture, which is claimed to be clinically proven to help regulate the digestive system. It had already been available in Europe for about 10 years, having started out in France in 1987 under the Danone Bio name. The brand achieved almost instant US success with first-year sales of more than $150 million. Moreover, it took the probiotics market out of the specialist dietary supplements arena and into the mainstream yogurt sector.

Other brands soon followed Activia into the probiotic yogurt market. However, interest started to turn to other types of items—particularly Greek yogurt. Many of them have probiotic attributes but have not emphasized the fact.  In the face of this new trend, Dannon’s Activia brand focused on good taste and “feeling good inside.” Meanwhile, Dannon launched its own Greek varieties with Activia Greek launched in mid-2013, closely followed by Activia Greek Light. The range now encompasses the classic Activia, Light, Greek, Greek Light as well as related products—such as drinks or yogurts emphasizing added fiber. Dannon also has promoted its single-serve probiotic yogurt drink in the US for some years under the DanActive name (sold as Actimel outside North America). 

Probiotic dairy drinks originated in Asia. Despite high levels of penetration there, the dose-delivery active health drink—also with a range of single and blended probiotic cultures—did not appear on the European market until the 1990s. Although there’s been relatively little US mainstream interest in DanActive, Japan’s Honsha Co., Ltd. continues to develop its US business. Yakult notes, meanwhile, that its product—featuring L. casei Shirota probiotic cultures—is a fermented dairy drink rather than a yogurt-based item.

Yakult first entered the US market in 1990 with product sourced in Mexico. Last spring (May 2014), Yakult USA opened a new plant California, its first US operation.  Yakult added a Yakult Light variety in 2012, but there is no sign yet of the Yakult Plus line, which launched in a number of European countries in 2013 and 2014. Yakult Plus was seen as a response to difficulties over health claims and marketing the existing Yakult lines and featured added fiber and 70% less sugar.

Kefir is another fermented dairy line that offers probiotic benefits. Here, Lifeway Foods has been a major driver in the US kefir market and the Chicago-area company now has an extensive range of products, all featuring a blend of 12 live and active cultures. For the record, Lifeway said this March that its total 2014 consolidated grocery sales increased 20% or $21.3 million to approximately $130.2 million from $109.0 million during the same 12-month period in 2013.

Lifeway’s extensive range now includes low-fat and non-fat kefir, traditional and Greek-style products and Kefir With Oats, as well as organic lines, single-serve Bio Kefir (including digestion, heart health and immunity products), frozen kefir and a children’s range under the ProBugs name. In 2014, new product activity appeared focused on extending appeal, with benefits being offered in addition to the probiotics.

It first added three savory vegetable-based smoothies under the Veggie Kefir name, featuring Beet, Cucumber and Tomato options, with each 8oz bottle featuring one serving of vegetables as well as the standard 12 probiotic cultures. Following this, it launched a four-product “Perfect 12” range sweetened with stevia and offering 12g of carbohydrates as well as the 12 probiotic cultures. That line features dessert-style flavors such as Apple Pear Cobbler, Triple Berry Tart, Orange Cream and Key Lime Pie.

Lifeway used 2015 Natural Products Expo West to introduce as many as 14 more products across its various platforms. Nevertheless, it faces increased competition from other dairy-based drinks as well as a growing legion of milk alternatives such as almond milks.

Whole Grain, High Fiber

Elsewhere, more companies are focusing on digestion with a more general health and wellness platform associated with whole grains and fiber. High-fiber or source-of-fiber claims were used on nearly 3.4% of food and drinks launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in 2014, rising to 4.6% in the US, while whole grains claims were used on 2% to all global offerings, rising to 3.4% in the US.

Cereals and bakery products are the most active product categories. In the breakfast cereals market, nearly 39% of 2014 launches in the US used a high-in-fiber or source-of-fiber positioning. Even more—closer to a 50% mark—used whole grain claims. The US has focused high-fiber brands such as General Mills’ Fiber One, which started in breakfast cereals, although it now covers a whole range of foods, including cereal bars, cookies, bread products, desserts and cottage cheese.

Meanwhile, Post’s Great Grains cereal moved more squarely into the digestive health arena with its Berry Medley and Vanilla Graham Digestive Blends, launched in the spring of 2014. In addition to featuring the standard whole grains and natural fiber of all Great Grains products, the new digestive blends lines were marketed as containing active cultures to offer “three key ingredients to help support digestive health and to help people feel more balanced from the inside out.”

Even with the high penetration of fiber-related claims in breakfast cereals, bakery products lead global new product activity. Bakery lines accounted for 21% of food and drinks launches using fiber-related claims in 2014, although this was equivalent to less than 6% of total global bakery introductions. In addition, 5.5% of bakery launches used whole grain claims, although some of these also used fiber claims. The two claims combined featured on 9% of bakery launches, rising to 16% in the US, where this type of claim is particularly popular.

Within the bakery market, biscuits accounted for nearly half of launches using fiber-related claims (excluding whole grains), although if this is separated into sweet and savory lines, bread moves into the leadership position, ahead of sweet biscuits and then savory biscuits. In terms of significance to their own market sector, however, bread is a clear leader, with products featuring a high-fiber positioning accounting for 15% of bread launches, ahead of savory biscuits (with just over 9%) and sweet biscuits (with just under 5%).

In the US, the share of bread and bread products—marketed on a fiber platform–rose even higher to more than a quarter of total bread launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in 2014. This increases to more than a third of total US launches if a whole grain positioning is included. High-fiber and whole grain products have continued to grow in popularity and, according to market research data, consumers now buy more whole wheat and whole grain bread varieties than white bread. Whole wheat breads are the most popular.

In the biscuits market, probably the key area of activity in high-fiber products has involved breakfast biscuits. Nearly all of them are promoted as high in fiber and/or whole grain, and many showcase fruit and fiber among their varieties. While biscuit consumption at breakfast time is relatively commonplace in some parts of the world, recent initiatives led by Mondelez and its belVita brand take the concept into new countries.

This started with the 2010 UK launch of belVita as a whole grain biscuit promoted as rich in cereals, vitamins and fiber, with slow carbohydrate release for sustained energy. It created a new breakfast biscuits sub-category. This emerging category soon drew a host of new brands from cereal companies, biscuits and bakery companies, as well as private label. Likewise, it quickly expanded into Germany, the US and Australia while retailers in other countries (such as France and Spain) revisited their existing store sets.

belVita debuted in the US in 2012 under the market-leading Nabisco biscuits umbrella. It pioneered a new sweet biscuits sector in the breakfast foods market or a new breakfast option in the cookie market—depending on point of view. Kellogg followed Nabisco into the market with its Kellogg’s To Go Morning Breakfast Biscuits in 2013. General Mills’ Nature Valley cereal bars brand also entered the market in early 2014 with Blueberry and Honey breakfast biscuit lines.

The other area of significant biscuit activity involves ancient grains, with a focus on their nutritional content and high-fiber properties. In the US savory biscuits market, representative introductions have included enerjive’s Quinoa Skinny Crackers; Van’s Foods’ Multigrain, “Lots of Everything!” and “Say Cheese” varieties; as well as Blue Diamond’s Nut Thins crackers.