Whole Foods Market informed suppliers last month that they are no longer allowed to include functional ingredients GanedenBC30 and LactoSpore in unhealthy snacks such as chips, granola, beverages with added sugar and more, according to BevNet. Probiotics are still acceptable in kombucha, unsweetened tea, nut butters, nutrition bars and other categories.
“By making health claims for a snack product, there is the underlying assumption that it should be eaten on a regular basis, which Whole Foods Market does not support from a philosophical standpoint," a Whole Foods company statement reads.
Some food industry players commend the retailer for refusing to sell products that intentionally mislead consumers with probiotic health claims, while others say the statement contains many grey areas. Whole Foods did not offer a stance on items like distinguish ice cream, frozen foods and dips with functional ingredients.
Whole Foods has just done something most grocery retailers wouldn't dare to: It's taken on a sizable number of product makers and told them, in no uncertain terms, that they reject their products if they make dubious health claims.
The addition of probiotics to fatty, sugary or otherwise unhealthy foods doesn't move those products from categories of occasional indulgence to every-day staples, but Whole Foods fears that consumers may see it this way.
It makes sense that manufacturers are using probiotic claims to position their products as healthy and better-for-you. It's an easy sell — consumer demand for easy-to-eat functional ingredients is at an all-time high, rivaling consumer obsession with added proteins. The probiotics market has seen significant growth in past years as consumers have embraced personalized nutrition, and this may shape the food industry in the same way as demand for soy and plant-based protein.
While manufacturers have run rampant with their added protein health claims, however, Whole Foods is drawing a line in the sand when it comes to probiotics. This appears to be a small victory for both retailer and manufacturer transparency — something consumers expect from premium, health-focused markets like Whole Foods.
Still, critics say the initial statement isn't enough. Some question why regular yogurt isn't found on the retailer's list of "unacceptable" items. It's one of the most popular probiotic applications and sometimes contains more sugar and fat than granola bars and other no-no products. Others believe each food category should have specific nutrition guidelines it needs to meet in order to add probiotics.
It will be interesting to see if Whole Foods adjusts its guidelines per critiques, and if other retailers will adopt them. Regardless, consumer demand for probiotic ingredients shows no sign of slowing down, and remains a prime space for manufacturer experimentation.