|Food & Nutrition||
|April 07, 2022||
|10 min read|
Understanding how fibre and other ingredients can affect gut health
As research reveals the role of gut microbiota in promoting human health, we are also beginning to understand how ingredients in our food can impact this inner universe. On World Health Day, Alina Squartecchis, IMCD Segment Expert Nutrition breaks down how gut health formulations present a new world of opportunity for food and beverage producers
The pandemic has accelerated global awareness of health issues. Consumers are now actively looking to support and strengthen their immunity through healthier routines and functional food and beverages, with the goal of preventing disease and improving overall wellbeing, while also promoting sustainability.
On World Health Day this year – marked annually on April 7 – the World Health Organisation challenges us to imagine a world focused on human and planetary wellbeing. Are economies doing enough to promote health? Can businesses help people take control of their health and the health of the planet?
Human beings share a very close interaction with the environment – one closer than many realise. Our bodies are host to trillions of microbial organisms, from bacteria to fungi, that play a major role in regulating human health through commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic activity.
Residing principally in the digestive system – or the gut – this microbiota has a wide-ranging impact, from digestion to brain health, according to research. In other words, we literally are what we eat.
In line with an increasing body of research, surveys show that consumers believe gut health is strongly connected to other areas such as immune function, mental health, and overall wellness. As an indicator of consumer activity, the number of Google searches for ‘gut health’ has grown six-fold over the past five years. Worldwide, interest picked up in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and has since grown steadily, particularly in Australia, Western Europe and North America.
The trend offers a new opportunity for the consumer-packaged goods sector to evolve its current portfolio with more health-forward products that keep the microbiome in optimum condition.
Functional ingredients could support food and beverage producers in meeting market demand for healthier options. Ingredient providers now offer a wide range of products that food and beverage developers can use to promote digestive health. These include fibre, probiotics and prebiotics, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other ingredients.
What is gut health?
The term ‘gut health’ covers multiple positive aspects of the gastrointestinal tract (GI), such as efficient digestion and absorption of food, a normal and stable intestinal microbiota, effective immune status, and a state of well-being. Methods of assessing, improving and maintaining gut health-related gastrointestinal functions are of major interest in preventive medicine.
More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, recognised the importance of diet and digestion in health and disease, observing, “Death sits in the bowels” and “Bad digestion is the root of all evil.”
Although we know now that not all diseases literally arise in the gut, many metabolic, cognitive and autoimmune disorders begin with gastrointestinal imbalances or disturbances. In a healthy body, pathogenic and symbiotic microbiota coexist without problems. However, any change in this complex ecological system directly influences human immune function and general wellbeing, and vice versa.
The impact of a healthy gut on human wellbeing
The gut is the largest immunological organ in our body and the microbiota plays a key role in human health, influencing many areas from immunity to innate appetite and energy metabolism. Let us consider two areas.
Gut health and immunity: The gut microbiota essentially activates the immune system by stimulating the maturation and functionality of immune cells, including protecting against exogenous pathogens and avoiding immune disorders.
Diet, environmental factors, stress, medication and lifestyle habits all contribute to modifying the balance of gut bacteria. Diet is among the most significant, with significant changes reported within 24 hours of a dietary modification. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up opportunities for ingredients that support immune and gut health. Consumers have become less confident about their immunity and are now more aware of the role that vitamins, minerals and functional ingredients play in supporting and boosting their natural defences.
Gut health, the brain and our emotions: Similarly, increasing evidence connects gut microbiota to both gastrointestinal and extra gastrointestinal diseases. Disruption of the microbiota homeostasis and inflammation of the gut have been linked to several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. Individuals also experience digestive discomfort when they are stressed, indicating a connection between emotional well-being and healthy digestive functioning. Often referred to as the gut-brain axis, the connection between the brain and the gut is biochemically linked: the gut microbiome harbours 90% of serotonin receptors and is therefore uniquely connected to mental health. A healthy gut is also linked to sleep and mood.
Developers of food and specialised nutrition products are looking for new ways to boost this symbiotic relationship. It has been argued that the fermented foods and beverages may positively influence human mental health, alleviate inflammation, control oxidative stress that can lead to cognitive dysfunction and neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease), and even lower the risk of anxiety or depression.
Ingredients focused on digestive health can support the health of the gut microbiota, in turn boosting overall human wellbeing. Strengthening existing formulations with functional ingredients such as fibre, probiotics, Omega 3 fatty acids and polyphenols can be potentially beneficial for the gut microbiota and support gut health.
Ingredients that promote gut health
As gut health and the microbiome gain in popularity, gut-healthy packaged food products offer consumers an alternative to supplements and pills. The food and beverage industry has the opportunity to formulate new gut health products to fill a growing demand gap.
Below are some key ingredients that can strengthen product offerings in the food sector:
Fibres & prebiotics
Vitamins and minerals
Polyunsaturated fatty acids
Incorporating gut health ingredients in some top applications
Ingredients that promote gut health can be put to work across many different food categories. IMCD can support the development of gut health formulations in areas such as nutrition, bakery, savoury, beverages, dairy and confectionery. However, adding functional ingredients to food products may come with some challenges. Let’s look at three areas:
Performance & Active Nutrition
Sports beverages and powders are typically convenient and easy to consume on the go. They are therefore an ideal vehicle for functional ingredients targeting gut health, such as probiotics, prebiotics, fibres and others.
However, the structure and nature of the different ingredients can influence the chemical, physical and properties of food. For example, a soluble ingredient can easily be incorporated into beverages – but resistance to processing conditions and shelf life must be considered alongside.
Processing can impact the action of an ingredient or the quality of the end product. For example, some probiotics have relatively low stability in heat or low pH conditions. This means they can break down during processing, which in turn impacts their efficacy and renders them unsuitable for use in beverages.
Similarly, adding fibre to certain products may influence texture, consistency, rheological properties, and consumer acceptability.
Some ingredients targeting gut health may have off-notes that require masking flavours or sweeteners.
The rise of plant-based proteins offers as a new pathway to target gut health. For consumers struggling with common health issues such as lactose intolerance or allergies to dairy proteins, plant-based beverages present a good alternative. Some of these products are high in fibre and can be combined with probiotics to promote digestion of the plant protein.
Finally, awareness of the uniqueness of each person’s gut microbiome is also stimulating demand for tailored sports nutrition, and some brands now make it possible for consumers to customise protein powders, bars and supplements according to their personal needs.
Nutrition bars such as cereal and protein bars are a good delivery system for fibre. In this type of application, fibres can work as a bulking aging, they can add lubricity, alter texture, and help replace sugar and fat in the formulation, improving overall nutritional quality.
However, the type of fibre added can impact physicochemical properties such as water binding capacity, viscosity, cohesiveness, structural stability, colour and shelf life, among others. One of the challenges of adding fibre to food products is digestive tolerance. The consumption of high fibre-rich foods may lead to undesirable negative effects such as flatulence and diarrhoea. Consequently, the key goal for food manufacturers is to find a balance between positive health effects and tolerance.
Jon Arzberger, Application technologist at IMCD, says: Using bakery products as the vehicle to deliver ingredients associated with promoting gut health can make sound nutritional sense, due to the ingredients’ nature and the high uptake of certain bakery items.
However, a few challenges must be considered when selecting ingredients for fortification and determining how they are used. For example, bakery items are subject to fairly high and/or prolonged heating processes – so ingredients such as probiotic bacteria and heat-labile vitamins are unlikely to survive the baking process in sufficient enough quantities to be functional. Fibre is commonly used to promote gut health in baked goods, but again, heating can break down certain types of fibres. Fermentation, such as in the case of bread, can also affect some fibres. The yeast used in fermentation, for example, uses some soluble fibres as fermentable carbohydrates, thus breaking them down and rendering them unavailable in the finished product.
It can be tempting therefore to fortify baked items with insoluble fibres, as these generally resist yeast and enzyme action and are also extremely heat stable. But insoluble fibres have their own challenges. For example, they tend to bind with water more than soluble fibres, altering the characteristics of the dough and making it harder to process. This binding action also reduces the water available to the yeast and can affect hydration levels in the finished product.
Fibres can also interfere with the formation of a strong and stable gluten network, affecting the shape, size and texture of the finished goods.
All these factors therefore need careful consideration and there is seldom a single ingredient that suits all applications universally. Instead, we recommend carefully evaluating the processes (shear, heating steps, heating times), the other ingredients in the formulation (such as leavening acids, gums and hydrocolloids, yeast and starches) and the inherent characteristics of the finished product (shelf life, pH, water activity). Mapping this information doesn’t just make it easier to select the optimum ingredient(s) for use, but the process may indicate a completely different solution with greater functionality and ease of incorporation. After such a mapping exercise, we may recommend combinations of ingredients, such as certain soluble fibres combined with insoluble fibres of specific grades and lengths, to deliver a high-quality finished product with strong gut health associations based on the ingredients used.
Mikhail Petrov, Dairy Segment Expert at IMCD, says: Dairy products may support the growing demand for immunity-boosting micronutrients, using different approaches from fermentation to fibre enrichment, pro- and prebiotics to enzymes.
For example, there are several studies demonstrating the ability of fermented products to improve digestion, promote anti-inflammatory effects and stimulate antioxidants, which can aid disease prevention. Yoghurt may spur changes in colonic bacteria that can lower the risk of irritable bowel syndrome, type-2 diabetes and Crohn’s disease.
The main challenge of working with starter cultures is accurately controlling the technological process where timing, pH level and temperature can play an important role in the product quality and the quantity of live bacteria.
On the other hand, lactose-free products help ensure that consumers with lactose intolerance enjoy the positive benefits of dairy, minimising the potential discomforts caused by lactose. Moreover, for some applications, the addition of lactase contributes to sugar reduction since the monosaccharides glucose and galactose can enhance the overall perception of sweetness when compared with lactose. This can be desirable in sweet applications such as desserts and yoghurts. When it comes to milk, however, it can be a challenge to remove these monosaccharides. Production time also plays a role in this process, since it takes longer and requires more resources.
Although not all fermented products contain probiotics, consumers believe there is a strong connection between the two and will probably continue to do so.
Dairy is traditionally seen as a healthy, natural food. Post-COVID-19, more consumers are looking for more functional options, allowing them to support their immunity via increased consumption of lactose-free, fibre- and prebiotic-enriched, fermented and nonfermented dairy products. As dairy experts, we are glad to help our customers with new formulation solutions which meet and exceed these consumers' expectations.
Overcoming challenges to gut health formulations
Diet has a significant impact on gut health, with a knock-on impact on other aspects of wellbeing, from blood sugar and cholesterol to immunity, weight and mental health. As such, incorporating fibre and other functional ingredients that promote gut health into current and new food formulations responds to a growing consumer need for wellness.
At the same time, manufacturers must address accompanying challenges. Many governmental authorities restrict the use of health claims on food packaging. In addition, functional ingredients may interact with other ingredients in an existing formulation or alter the structure of the product.
IMCD has an established track record of partnering with food manufacturers to advise and develop food products that can satisfy consumer needs while meeting business demand for specialised nutrition products. With our extensive team, we can help brands anticipate and respond to the trend for gut health formulations and nutritionally enhanced foods through the in-depth market analysis as well as a deep understanding of recipes, applications and processes.
Whether you are looking to innovate, enhance the nutritional properties of an existing product, improve taste, modify texture, reduce cost, extend shelf life or increase production efficiency, we have the ingredients and the expertise to overcome any formulation challenge.
World Health Day is a good opportunity to start a conversation with us.