Probiotics and skin health: Emerging opportunities for ingredients industry

Probiotics have risen to become one of the world’s most popular functional ingredients. Euromonitor International’s ingredients data shows that global volume consumption rose from 26,539 tonnes in 2004 to 44,661 tonnes in 2009, surpassing omega-3 consumption by more than three times.

Up until now, probiotic product promotion has centred mostly around intestinal health and immunity benefits, but as the category evolves to the tune of the latest scientific research, new positions are starting to emerge. One of these is skin health.

Probiotic skin health benefits can be divided into two main areas – eczema/dermatitis alleviation in children and beauty enhancement in adult women.

Battling childhood eczema

Atopic dermatitis, a type of eczema, is very common in babies and young children, and is regarded as a manifestation of a dysfunctional immune system. The American Academy of Dermatologists estimates that up to one fifth of infants are affected by the condition to some degree.

Usually, eczema disappears of its own accord as children get older, but it may persist into adulthood. Apart from being unsightly, large patches of itchy, inflamed skin and bleeding scabs can be very detrimental to a child’s quality of life, psychologically as well as physically.

A body of research is beginning to form which indicates that certain strains of probiotic bacteria may be able to modulate infant immune system development in such a way as to alleviate the condition or prevent it from arising in the first place.

For instance, a study carried out by Lviv National Medical University in Ukraine, and presented at the New York Academy of Sciences Symposium on 11 June 2010, showed that supplementation with L. acidophilus DDS-1 and B. lactis UABLA-12 brought about an improvement in atopic dermatitis in young children aged 1-3 years.

However, the scientific evidence in support of the application of probiotics in eczema treatment appears not to be quite persuasive enough for some. In July 2010, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) confirmed its rejection of a selection of health claims proposed by Danone, including one pertaining to immunity, which was partly based on a study backing up probiotics’ positive effect on atopic dermatitis.

EFSA remains unconvinced by the studies submitted by Danone, which are meant to show that increased concentrations of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli in the gut have a proven beneficial physiological effect.

Despite such teething problems, probiotics as a functional ingredient in infant and children’s foods are likely to take off big time. They should follow the same path as omega-3, which is now being added to an estimated 95% of milk formula sold in the US. There are plenty of probiotic and prebiotic milk formula products on the market already, especially in the toddler milk category. In the future, the addition of probiotics to milk formulas could, quite conceivably, rise to become a new industry standard.

Although concrete health claims advertising skin health benefits would, no doubt, be helpful, parents caring for eczema-ridden children tend to be very motivated when it comes to finding out what might help to alleviate their suffering, and seeing that probiotics have no known disadvantages or negative health impacts, many will try anything to rid their offspring of the affliction.

Besides milk formula and children’s yoghurts, snacks and beverages for toddlers, pre-school and primary school-age children are next in line for probiotic infiltration, including biscuits, juice drinks and fruit snacks, such as dried apple crisps, for example.

In July 2010, US-based Ganeden Biotech Inc, maker of the patented probiotic strain GanedenBC30, announced the imminent launch of probiotic chocolate and yoghurt products through its partner Tropical Nut & Fruit Inc, a manufacturer of nut and fruit snack products. Among them are yoghurt-covered probiotic raisins, a type of product that lends itself particularly well to targeting school-age children.

Probiotic beauty from within

While consumers should grow fairly receptive towards child-targeted probiotic foods and beverages leveraging a skin health positioning in the not-too-distant future, probiotics aimed at adult women as an ingredient in “beauty-from-within” functional products could prove much trickier in some geographies than others. While beauty foods and drinks are well established in Asia-Pacific (particularly in Japan and South Korea), consumers in Western Europe and North America have, so far, remained rather sceptical.

Most industry watchers will remember the well-publicised withdrawal of Danone’s Essensis beauty yoghurt from the European market last year, a product which contained probiotics, amongst other functional ingredients. Much criticism was directed at Danone for venturing into such risky waters in the first place.

Somebody, however, has to go first, and the main reason the market was less than receptive at the time may have had more to do with the launch coming at an inopportune moment, just as the recession started clenching its jaws, sending consumers stampeding towards economy ranges.

Now that the panic is subsiding, and the health and wellness trend is starting to show ever stronger indications that consumers are moving their focus from quick-fix treatments to longer-term preventative measures, the time for beauty foods is nigh.

The bulk of the work has already been done in the dietary supplements category, where probiotics are increasingly being employed in nutricosmetics positioned at skin health. For instance, Nestlé claims that its Innéov Solaire with Skin Probiotic, available in 12 European countries, is a breakthrough probiotic which helps protect the skin from UV rays. The company states that it is actively researching and developing new uses for probiotics, including promoting skin health and beauty.

Although competition from topical skin care products promising virtually immediate results is strong, consumers are starting to pick up on the notion that longer-term preventative measures are also valuable, as, for example, with antioxidant-rich anti-ageing products. They also know from gut-health positioned probiotic food marketing that positive effects should be expected within a few weeks, not hours.

Unlike with digestive health and immunity, mainstream consumers have not yet grasped the link between probiotics and skin health, but there is no reason to presume that they will not pick up on this in the future, providing manufacturers invest sufficiently in consumer education. It would probably be a good strategy to combine several skin beauty ingredients in the same product, such as antioxidants, which are already associated with anti-ageing properties. The aforementioned Innéov Solaire, for example, combines probiotics with carotenoids, which are widely known to protect the skin from sun radiation.

When targeting adults, food and beverage products promoted as alleviating eczema may also benefit from auxiliary ingredients long associated with providing relief from eczema and dry-itchy skin, such as evening primrose oil and/or various essential fatty acids.