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When it comes to gut health, the first thing that usually comes to mind is digestion (or the unfortunate opposite, indigestion). We associate the gut with a healthy digestive system, and most are aware of how indigestion can lead to bloat, flatulence, or incontinence. However, studies have shown that the gut affects more than just our stomach – it’s a prime area to focus on to improve overall health.

The gut is home to our enteric nervous system, which includes a network of nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters – the same as our central nervous system. As such, the gut has been called ‘the second brain’, and research has shown that the gut can transmit signals to the brain in mere seconds. As our second brain, the importance of the gut can’t be downplayed – especially its links to our overall physical and mental wellbeing. With increasing numbers of studies extolling the connection between the gut microbiome and various aspects of health, consumers are even keener on seeking solutions that work with their bodies.

The awareness of gut health is growing in Asia-Pacific. While still a niche area, where only 2% of APAC food, drink, and supplement product launches held a digestive health claim, such launches have grown by 23% over the last five years. Apart from product categories such as drinking yogurt and liquid cultured milk, which are already widely regarded to aid gut health, other categories such as vitamins, minerals, and tea are some of the most common product varieties with digestive health claims. Don’t forget seasonings, cold cereals, and meal replacements – these categories show significant growth in the Asia-Pacific region.

Focusing on food as a growth area to address gut health concerns is a good starting point. According to Mintel Global Consumer, seven in 10 consumers in Asia-Pacific said that they put a lot of thought into what they ate. Food and beverage products that address health concerns are likely to gain more traction among consumers who are increasingly aware of what they eat and look for healthier options.

With the growth in the popularity of digestive health claims, there is no lack of products for consumers to try out – but what good can these products do? The lack of knowledge among general consumers on how gut health represents an opportunity for brands to introduce initiatives that raise awareness among the public. Greater understanding and awareness of the importance of gut health for overall wellbeing means that there’s ample space for innovation around functional food and beverages that support gut health, improving overall wellbeing. To effectively tap on the potential of gut health claims, brands can focus on tested and proven areas that will appeal to even the least health-conscious consumer – skin health, immunity, and mental and emotional health.

Support the skin health through gut health

In recent years, we’ve seen more discussion around the skin-gut axis – or the gut microbiome’s influence on the skin, achieved through complex immune mechanisms. It has been widely researched, but the skin-gut axis is still not yet fully understood. However, consumers in Asia-Pacific may already know how our gut and the food we eat can affect our skin – an average of 76% of consumers in the region agreed that a healthy diet could be more beneficial to skin/hair than the products used externally.

Probiotics and prebiotics can support a healthy gut microbiota (the population of microorganisms that live in the gut). A recent study from Frontiers in Microbiology has found that probiotics and prebiotics have prevented or treated inflammatory skin disorders like acne vulgaris and rosacea. Similarly, a study showed that the gut could affect psoriasis and that oral consumption of probiotics could improve the symptoms of psoriasis which usually causes skin cells to multiply faster than normal, causing bumpy patches on the skin.

While consumers are largely aware that probiotics and prebiotics-heavy foods such as yogurt and kefir can do good, more can be done to draw a direct link between such products and gut health, and subsequently its positive impact on one’s skin.

Promoting a healthy gut microbiota has broad potential for immune health

Apart from better skin health, the gut also can significantly affect immunity. We see more research on how the intestinal environment boost immunity more effectively, but not enough on translating such information to the general consumer.

Highlighting the immunity benefits of gut health could not have come at a more opportune time. COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the importance of maintaining a strong immune system. Pre-existing health conditions such as high blood pressure or obesity are widely known to make one more vulnerable to COVID-19. As such, consumers are eager to maintain a certain level of health and, in turn, strengthen their immunity against illnesses that weaken the body’s response.

Boosting immunity via the intestinal environment can also be achieved through diet. Knowing this, consumers are focused on the idea of taking supplements to improve the probiotic (i.e., intestinal) environment and look for more food and drink formulations with probiotics, fermentation and, prebiotics to improve their wellness. With the impact of COVID-19 still fresh on many consumers’ minds, there will be greater demand for a variety of probiotics – and we will see more diversification of probiotic food and drink (e.g., soymilk , juice, etc.), as well as usage occasions of probiotics (e.g., using specific strains targeting various health needs, such as weight management, skin improvement, etc.).

The potential of gut/brain connection

As discussed in Mintel consumer trend, ‘Total Wellbeing,’ emerging scientific research and improved health tracking have encouraged consumers to find solutions that complement the natural inbuilt body clock. Taking care of the human ecosystem doesn’t mean just physical health. Cognitive functions, including learning, memory, and perception, also rely on the brain and the body – and this brings us to maintaining a healthy gut/brain axis.

The gut/brain axis is the connection linking the brain, digestive system, and emotions and is essential in protecting our cognitive and physical wellbeing. It’s the reason why we feel butterflies in our stomach when we’re excited or nauseous when we’re nervous or scared. As such, maintaining gut health is just as important when discussing mental and cognitive functions.

The growing awareness and exploration surrounding the gut-brain axis is reflected in the growth in patents filed by research institutions, healthcare businesses and food and drink companies around the globe. We’ve seen patents registered to propose that mental health disorders could be alleviated by ingesting a specific bacterium, and there’s been discussion linking gastrointestinal symptoms to autism spectrum disorder. With growing talk in the scientific sphere into the gut microbiome suggesting a broader influence on wellbeing, including impact on mental health issues, the public is gradually catching on, and there are likely to be wider opportunities for a range of possible claims in the future.

To address the needs of the regular consumer, brands can once again turn to pre-and probiotics – specific prebiotic fibres or bacteria strains may influence cognitive functions and help balance mood. With the widespread acceptance of such food in the form of yogurt, kimchi and juices, there is ample opportunity to explore the use of pre-and probiotics for gut and cognitive health.

Beyond that, postbiotics are also gaining ground. Postbiotics are non-viable bacterial products or metabolic products of probiotic bacteria and are said to regulate gastrointestinal health, helping to decrease inflammation while boosting brain function. Forms of postbiotics include organic acids or short-chain fatty acids, peptidoglycans, and polysaccharides. Keep a lookout for the growth of postbiotics, which are generally found in food fermented by live bacteria – think tempeh and sauerkraut. An advantage postbiotics have is that offer alternatives to probiotics in categories like ambient dairy or ambient snacks and other categories where consumers may be interested in probiotics, but technical challenges (e.g., heat treatment, ambient storage, lack of moisture in product etc.) make it very difficult for producers to keep probiotics alive. These emerging ingredients might offer an alternative means of delivering the health benefits of living microorganisms to consumers in such categories. Postbiotics also have the potential to emerge as a functional ingredient for the gut microbiome, where postbiotics can complement established prebiotics and probiotics in products offering consumers a total gut and brain health solution.

Don’t forget the gut

All this is to say that the gut is more important than we think it is. Research shows that gut health is inextricably linked to the rest of our body and can significantly impact our skin, immunity, and cognitive functions. Many consumers already know that maintaining gut health is vital to overall wellbeing – but tap on the interest to highlight links to the other parts of the body and reinforce the role of consuming prebiotics and probiotics (and as more research emerges, postbiotics) in ensuring gut health.