For the past few years, we’ve noted in these pages that digestive health, and the probiotic bacteria and prebiotic fibers and starches that support it, would continue to be the hottest trends in “better for you” food and beverage development. And, true to our predictions, consumer interest in digestive health has only continued to expand. Constant publicizing that the digestive tract is often referred to as the body’s largest internal organ of immunity made the relationship between the two inextricable.

While the COVID-19 pandemic did not change that, it has created opportunities for consumers to widen their focus of food and ingredients for immunity beyond pre- and probiotics. Don’t worry; this is not a case of “replacement theology,” but an additive situation. Americans are not only more interested than ever before in digestive health to support the immune system but are grasping at any ingredients that can help them protect themselves from diseases, whether viruses or other nasties such as bacterial infections or cancer.

As reported by Devon Gholam, PhD, in Prepared Foods last July (“Right in the Gut”), a 2020 global survey on gut health conducted by HealthFocus International revealed that 81% of consumers selecting food products for digestive health are interested in “overall wellness” versus selecting for any one particular disease or dysfunction. That same survey showed that 54% of consumers are “extremely” or “very interested” in the gut microbiome.

This dual focus on overall wellness and digestive health have become two sides of the same coin — preventive health —and sync perfectly with the resurgence of interest in whole health versus the more modular approach of single systems (e.g., heart health, eye health, brain health) as the recognition that digestive health is the front line for all of these systems becomes more pervasive.



Among the ingredients supporting digestive health that are continuing to trend, probiotic bacteria and the prebiotic fibers and starches that feed them remain in the pole position. While thousands of species and strains are being studied for their perceived benefits, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus remain among the top probiotic genuses used in digestive health products, with about a dozen species of each being the most common. Bacillus coagulans and Lactobacillus plantarum, too, have been prominent. Streptococcus thermophiles has been appearing in more products of late, but with the surge of attention paid to digestive health and its relationship to immunity in the face of current events, we can expect to see others gain a stronger foothold.

The most popular prebiotics include resistant starch; oligosaccharides, such as fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), gluco-oligosaccharides (GOS), trans-galacto-oligosaccharides (TOS), and xylo-oligosaccharides (XOS); and polysaccharides, such as inulin, galactomannan, and beta-glucans.

Around a decade ago, the term “synbiotic” was coined to describe a balance of prebiotic and probiotic ingredients that are known to work synergistically. The term to add in 2021 will be “postbiotics.” The term refers primarily to deactivated probiotic strains as well as the byproducts of prebiotic fermentation in the lower digestive tract.




The doubling of effort to get more science-supported immunity ingredients into the better-for-you product makers’ arsenal has brought bioactive mushrooms and other fungi into the spotlight. To find out which ones are expected to trend up in the coming year, click here for “Mushrooms for Immunity.”


Studies have shown that these deactivated bacteria help regulate the immune system by interfering with the ability of a pathogen to attach to cells. They also produce lipoteichoic acids, peptidoglycans, and exo-polysaccharides. These are known to exhibit immune-modulating capacity and to disrupt pathogens. Postbiotics also are believed to trigger secondary alterations in the microbiome as well as having antioxidant capacity.

Gut-fermented prebiotic compounds also release immune-
benefitting chemicals, primarily the short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) acetate, propionate, and butyrate. They are absorbed by intestinal cells and move into the liver and circulatory system.
They protect the intestinal lining, function as anti-inflammatory agents, and engage directly in immunomodulation.



The lipid-soluble vitamins — A, D, E, and K — are proving to be major players in supporting the body’s ability to ward off and fight diseases. The best food sources of the tocotrienol form of vitamin E, at around 400 times the antioxidant capacity of its sister form, tocopherol, include annatto, rice bran oil, red palm oil, and sea buckthorn berries. These latter also contain high amounts of omega fatty acids.

Vitamin D has experienced a massive surge in interest following a burst of studies indicating its importance in helping to protect against coronaviruses. Already in the spotlight for its rapidly growing list of proven benefits, the hormone-like vitamin can expect to double its impact on the food and beverage scene in 2021, especially as health experts estimate between 25% and 40% of Americans are deficient in their intake.

It’s no surprise that the breakout trend for immune health in 2021 is going to be anti-viral ingredients. While traditional and anecdotal evidence identifies thousands of such ingredients, a review published just last October in the journal Molecules provides an impressively comprehensive overview of several hundred botanicals and botanical extracts, the viruses they have been most studied for combatting, and their mechanisms of action.

While many herbs, spices, and rhizomes have exhibited antiviral capacity in studies over the years, among the more common botanical ingredients currently being used in food and beverage products marketed specifically for antiviral support are ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and curcumin extracts from turmeric (Curcuma longa). Some to keep an eye out for include extracts of olive leaf (Olea europaea L) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

With immunity being the watchword of 2021, the ingredients outlined above — as well as others in their class — will be shifting the better-for-you paradigm. Developers of products incorporating them will need to rely on informed suppliers to guide them through ensuring functionality and efficacy, and surmounting the marketing hurdles they are likely to encounter.