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The Potential of Probiotics in Naturally Functional Food in Asia

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Naturally functional benefits in food have long been linked to herbal ingredients and traditional cuisine in Asia, often rooted in fermented foods. For instance, in Japan, natto (fermented soybeans) is known for benefiting immune health. As studies have shown that fermented foods are the most common natural source of probiotic strains of lactic acid bacteria (LAB), this has helped to raise the reputation of these foods and consumer familiarity with probiotics and their benefits has grown across Asia.

In fact, the rise of packaged Korean cuisine products (as part of the K-food wave) potentially adds to the proliferation of packaged food containing active probiotics, given that the core of K-food lies in Korean sauces made from fermented soybeans. For example, Bibigo (CJ Corp) includes the health benefits of its packaged kimchi products on packaging labels when it sells into export markets like Thailand. These include the probiotic content and benefits to digestion and the immune system.

Probiotics lead clean and functional health trends

In the Asia Pacific region, probiotics as a packaged food ingredient are set to grow more quickly over the five years following 2023 than during the previous 5-year period. This is forecast to be driven by R&D advancements and strengthening consumer interest in health and wellbeing.

Chart showing Cultures and Probiotic Cultures as Ingredients in Packaged Food: Asia Pacific

The widespread awareness of probiotics in Asia Pacific for the benefit of digestive health has been championed by drinking yoghurt.

In drinking yoghurt alone, probiotic cultures totalled 10,900 tonnes in 2023
Source: Euromonitor International

This is, in part, thanks to major local brands like Ambrosial (Inner Mongolia Yili) and Yakult (Yakult Honsha). Their rise shows that the potential of probiotics now applies to a wider variety of products, bolstered by the growing reputation of cultured food and fermentation in the production of novel foods.

Leveraging strong foundations for further success

In industries like dairy products and alternatives where probiotics penetration has been well developed, it is opportune to move into new health benefit areas of demand such as brain health. Fortification with probiotics could also work in snacks, while leveraging the digestive health claim in staple foods could allow penetration of more categories.

Chart showing Probiotic vs Digestive Health Claims in Packaged Food: Asia Pacific Increased attention to the gut-brain axis has sparked innovations emphasising benefits to mental health. Whilst in Asia Pacific bone and joint health is largely known to be driven by calcium as the key functional ingredient, other health benefits still lack consumer understanding, and this is a key area for consumer education backed by scientific evidence.

Position as nutritious, indulgent, and trendy

Probiotic dairy is growing increasingly successful in Asia Pacific due to its perception as a mixture of indulgence and nutrition – providing both a good taste/experience and a promise of healthfulness.

There is a trend towards willingness to pay more for products that have all-natural, health and nutritional properties and speciality/new variety positionings in markets like Vietnam, India and the Philippines, indicating that these are complementary claims

Source: Euromonitor International

Holistic wellness in foods (ie products that are both nutritious and beneficial for overall wellbeing, whether physical, emotional and/or mental) has historically not been at the fore of health and wellness in Asia, which has been more focused on physical health benefits. Combined with the reward- and treat-based nature of categories like ice cream and savoury snacks, and the novel flavours of trending cuisines in meals, the penetration of probiotics has potential to leverage the shift towards healthy indulgence. This can also justify higher prices and a more premium positioning. Prospective categories considering the inclusion of probiotics must therefore keep these traits in mind.

Read our report, New Frontiers in Healthy Food and Beverages, for more analysis, case studies and strategic recommendations.

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