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Finding gut health at the supermarket

A rising interest in gut health is spurring leading supermarket and retail chains in India to stock up on gut-friendly foods their customers want

Supermarkets today showcase a thoughtfully curated selection of gut-friendly items like high-fibre veggies, yogurts and fermented foods(Pexels/Gustavo Fring )

By Tanisha Saxena

LAST PUBLISHED 20.02.2024  |  08:00 AM IST

In a landscape saturated with wellness trends, the subject of gut health seems to soldier on—inspiring everyone from researchers to wellness gurus to study it and advocate diets focussed on it. And beyond the impact of social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, where influencers endorse various products and unconventional diets, the “Good Gut" trend is evolving into more than a fleeting craze, signifying a fundamental change in our approach to wellness and healthcare. 

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“Gut health involves the effective functioning of the digestive system including organs like the stomach and intestines. It encompasses a balance of beneficial and harmful microorganisms in the gut and the overall integrity of the gut lining," explains Dr. Sreekanth Appasani, a consultant medical gastroenterologist in KIMS Hyderabad. The GI tract houses a significant portion of immune cells—up to 80%. Trillions of bacteria form a protective barrier, fostering immune tolerance. Which is why, as Appasani says, “a healthy gut is vital for proper digestion, absorption of nutrients, and plays a key role in supporting overall immune function." 

Besides staving chronic ailments and allergies, good gut health has been linked to alleviating conditions such as depression and anxiety. This is because the gut and the brain are closely interconnected and engage in continuous communication. “The gut microbiota plays a crucial role in regulating mood and emotions by producing and interacting with various substances, including neurotransmitters such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin," says Dipti Patawari, counselling psychologist at Lissun, a tech-enabled mental health startup in Gurgaon. Serotonin, often referred to as the “happy hormone" is primarily synthesized in the gut and influences mood, appetite, and sleep patterns, she adds. 

While the subject has inspired books and shows, this rising interest in gut health among the public has globally caught the attention of a new, unlikely set of players — supermarket and retail chains. 

Gut health down the aisle
Yes, traditionally considered as purveyors of essential groceries, supermarkets and retail chains are now waking up to the potential business opportunity of gut wellness. In early January this year for instance, UK retail giant M&S Food teamed up with nutrition science company ZOE to launch a new drink – M&S Food x ZOE Gut Shot. The motivation? More consumers were focusing on gut health. 

‘Gut health’ was named as a top food trend by UK-based data analytics firm Kantar in 2023, the retailer noted in their press statement. Priced at £2 
(Rs. 209), the M&S Food x ZOE Gut Shot is a ‘creamy yet tart’ milk drink with kefir and berries and does not contain added sugars or sweeteners, artificial gums or emulsifiers. Each shot contains over five billion live cultures from 14 strains of friendly bacteria and is high in fibre and a source of calcium, the retailer further revealed.

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Later that month, another retail leader, the US-headquartered Target Corp, announced that it was introducing more than 1,000 new wellness products to “support guests on their wellness journey without stretching their budgets," as an article by Food Institute reveals. Among its offerings are non-alcoholic beverages and pre- and probiotic nutrition products. While grocery and retail chains in the West seem well-poised to tap into the gut wellness trend, Indian retail stores are taking baby steps as well. And they have some good reason to if one were to go by a recent report by TechSci Research. 

Titled India Probiotic Market - Industry Size, Share, Trends, Competition Forecast & Opportunities, 2029, the study stated that the Indian Probiotic Market reached $34.85 million in 2023 and is expected to grow with by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20.5% between 2025 to 2029. Attributing the trend to a heightened focus on health among consumers, the report noted that the growing demand for probiotic products is ‘driven by the perceived benefits of probiotics on digestive and immune system health’. 

Prateek Raheja, a Delhi based fitness coach is representative of this health-conscious audience. “I prioritise maintaining a healthy gut, so when I shop at my neighbourhood supermarket, I make it a point to buy fermented foods such as kimchi and yogurt," he says adding that he shops for products like kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut as ‘a well-balanced gut contributes to my overall well-being.’

Abhishek Gupta, marketing head, FIWA (Food Industries Welfare Association), has been observing the trend of retails chains in the country implementing various strategies to cater to health-conscious consumers. Reliance Fresh, a prominent supermarket chain, has established dedicated Health and Wellness sections within its stores, he says. “These sections showcase a thoughtfully curated selection of products, with a specific focus on gut-friendly items like probiotic-rich yogurts, fermented foods, and dietary supplements." Spencer’s Retail is another example. “In 2020, during the pandemic, Spencer’s partnered with Dr. Path Labs to provide their customers with guidance on healthy food choices through in-store seminars, online content, or expert-recommended product selections," Gupta shares. 

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Future Gazing
Nutritionist Shweta Shah, founder of EatFit247, too has observed traction among supermarkets and digital platforms who offer personalized nutrition advice based on microbiome analyses. She refers to Xume, an Indian AI-powered grocery scoring and recommendation platform, partnering with gut microbiome research venture, Microbiome.in, and advanced diagnostics lab brand, TruDiagno, in September 2023 to democratize preventive healthcare. 

“The partnership aims to provide personalized diagnostics focusing on gut health and key markers to empower individuals with informed choices for proactive healthcare," she says. Shah, however, believes that unlike retail brands in the West who’ve dived right in, Indian retail chains have only just begun to explore the path and there’s a lot more to be done. 

Integrative nutritionist and gut health coach Sheetal Bansal foresees Indian supermarkets and grocery stores becoming wellness enablers in the future. In the domain of online platforms and apps, major players in the grocery industry will implement user-friendly interfaces, she predicts. “These platforms will boast features like ‘Nutrition Filters’ and dedicated sections for ‘Health and Wellness’. For instance, users will seamlessly filter products based on dietary preferences, including labels that highlight gut-friendly options." 

Another noteworthy trend could involve leading supermarket chains collaborating with certified nutritionists or dietitians. Customers will have the opportunity to seek personalised advice on gut-healthy diets, Bansal observes before concluding on a hopeful note, “Beyond providing a valuable service to customers, these collaborations will establish supermarkets as trusted sources of health information." 

Tanisha Saxena is a Delhi-based independent journalist. She writes stories that are on the intersection of art, culture and lifestyle.

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