Consumers with the greatest need could be missing out on the health benefits of probiotics since they are not 'streetwise' about health issues and may not be able to afford them, says a nutrition scientist.
According to Lisa Miles, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, products containing probiotics or 'healthy bacteria' attract most interest from consumers who pay close attention to health matters. Moreover, the relatively high cost means that that they tend to appeal to the "healthy wealthy".
But there is evidence that probiotics could benefit people who do not have balanced intestinal microflora, which may be a result of poor diet. This indicates that it may be time to tweak the marketing platform or price ballpark to open up a new sector of the market.
Mismatch between consumers, products
"Considering that poor diets are more common in lower socio-economic groups, it is likely that there is a mismatch between the consumers of probiotic products and those who would most benefit from them," wrote Miles in the Nutrition Bulletin.
New food and ingredient trends often enter the market at the premium-end, adopted by a pioneering consumer segment that wants to be the first to try out new concepts before trickling down gradually to the mass market.
At the Healthy Foods Summit held in London in November, Peter Wennström, president of Health Focus Europe, said that food companies must understand their role in the market, and how to commercialise innovations in health stakeholder-by-stakeholder.
First, he said, come the technology stakeholders – the inventors and people pushing forward the innovations, who put the function before the food, come from a medical point of view and target real health problems.
Second are the consumers who understand that technology adds value to their lifestyle and are the first to understand and adopt a new concept.
Third come consumers who wait for a concept to reach the mass market before they will try it, and when it has become standard for all foods in a given category.
"They are motivated by food, not functional food," said Wennström. "Over time, technology becomes a normal part of our diet."
Omega 3, plant sterols at similar stage
Other ingredients at a similar stage of trickle-down to mass market as probiotics are omega-3 and plant sterols.
In the latter case, some inroads have been made towards targeting price-sensitive consumers by formulation of supermarket-own brand products using Forbes MediTech's Reducol sterols.
Although these contain lower amounts of sterols than market leading brands, they are considerably cheaper and may serve to introduce a broader slice of the European population to the concept.
Miles' article, entitled Facts behind the headlines: Are probiotics beneficial to health?, is in response to a spate of articles in the mainstream press last year that questioned the efficacy of probiotics on the UK market. These followed a briefing at the Society for Applied Microbiology by experts in the field who warned that many products contain fewer friendly bacteria than claimed.
Check labels carefully
The advise to consumers was to check product labels carefully to ensure they contain the correct dose of Bifidobacteria or Lactobacillus Sp, but some sensationalist headlines could cause consumers to eye probiotics with suspicion.
In her article, Miles looked at the latest research on probiotics, in areas such as concept, survival in the digestive tract, evidence of effectiveness. In vivo studies have been recommended to further elucidate the effects of probiotics.
Moreover, although there are indications that probiotics are helpful for some forms of inflammatory bowel disease, Miles cites conclusions that "too few clinical trials have taken place to allow a definitive conclusion to be drawn" (Santosa et al 2006).
Another study (Rolfe 2000) identified the need for more randomised controlled trials (blinded) looking at dose-dependency and duration of effect of specific probiotic strains – especially since much of the research in this area has been in vitro or in animals, and the same effects may not hold in humans. - (Decision News Media, February 2007)
What are probiotics?
Feed your tummy bugs