SA oblivious to probiotics

Most South Africans are oblivious to the existence, and health benefits, of probiotics and prebiotics – despite exposure to these topics, according to a study conducted by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

The study looked at pro- and prebiotic awareness and understanding among consumers purchasing yoghurt at large retail food stores in Pretoria.

A mere 14% of the study participants indicated that they have heard of probiotics, while only 3% indicated that they were aware of prebiotics.

It has been shown that probiotics can alleviate lactose intolerance, potentially improve immune status, and reduce blood lipid levels and blood pressure.

How the research was done

The aim of the study was to determine consumer awareness and understanding of the terms “probiotics”, “prebiotics” and “AB cultures”.

“Probiotics” were simplistically defined as microorganisms that have beneficial health and microbial effects; “AB cultures” as health-promoting bacteria; and “prebiotics” as food components or ingredients that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.

According to Irma Venter, who presented a talk on the research at the recent 21st Biennial Nutrition Congress of the Nutrition Society of South Africa, the data for the study was obtained through a quantitative descriptive survey using a pre-tested, self-administered questionnaire.

The sample comprised randomly selected yoghurt buyers. As functional-food purchasing is biased towards the higher socio-economic groups, the higher LSM (living standard measurement) market was targeted.

The participant sample of 300 was predominantly female, 18-39 years of age, Afrikaans speaking and users of dietary supplements.

Important results

The study showed that a mere 14% of participants had heard of probiotics, that 27% had heard of AB cultures, and that only 3% were familiar with the concept of prebiotics.

Yoghurt was the food product predominantly associated with probiotics by the participants aware of the term. These participants’ major source of probiotic information was the printed media, followed by family, friends and colleagues.

Approximately 11% of the participants could provide a description for probiotics, of which about half gave an accurate description.

Only 2% of the participants described prebiotics. Of these six participants, only two described the term correctly.

No difference was found in the awareness of probiotics between the genders, the age groupings, those participants who consumed yoghurt and those who didn’t, and those who used dietary supplements and those who didn’t.

However, both an awareness of AB cultures and an awareness of prebiotics were significantly associated with an awareness of probiotics.

Importance of consumer awareness

The largest segment of the functional foods market in Japan, Europe and Australia comprises foods containing pro- and prebiotics.

In the US, positive press coverage of probiotics contributed to increased consumer awareness.

According to Venter, “consumer awareness is a key factor for market penetration and growth of new products.”

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