BY MARIE STAFFORD,
EUROPEAN DIRECTOR, JWT INNOVATION GROUP
Every human body plays host to its own collection of trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses – on our skin, in our ears and noses, and in our gut. It’s called the human microbiome and it’s estimated that it accounts for 90% of the cells in our body. What’s more, the microbiome plays an incredibly important role in keeping us healthy, according to the latest research.
Science says that the greater the diversity of bacteria species in the microbiome, the better our health. But a combination of factors like poor Western diets based on processed foods, a reliance on antibiotics and even the overzealous use of antibacterial cleaning products and hand sanitisers means that many people now have a severely depleted microbiome. Research has linked imbalances in the microbiome with a host of conditions from obesity to diabetes. There is even evidence of a connection with autism, anxiety and depression.
It’s not all bad news. Studies have shown that making improvements to our diet and including foods that are rich in pro-and prebiotics may be beneficial and help to restore a healthy gut, pointing to a major new opportunity for the food and beverage industry.
There are already signs of growing consumer interest, likely driven by an explosion in media coverage on this topic in the last couple of years – Google Trends shows web searches for “microbiome” rising steadily since 2013. There’s also a lively publishing industry on the theme: a search on Amazon produces more than 400 microbiome-related titles offering advice, recipes and diet plans. There are even microbiome sequencing services which can provide personal analyses: US biotech start-up uBiome ships its sequencing kits internationally for less than a hundred dollars.
And now the race is on to devise innovative products dedicated to supporting our gut flora.
“In the coming years you will be hard-pressed not to find miles and miles of food aisles with products that promote our microbiome,” says Jeff Leach. Leach is the founder of the Human Food Project, an organisation dedicated to researching the microbiome. The project has produced the Human Food Bar, a granola-based snack made with organic agave inulin and baobab flour, two prebiotic ingredients that we may see more of in years to come as brands look to tap the microbiome opportunity.
A number of big food companies have already kicked off their R&D effort in this space. Nestle, General Mills and Danone are among the companies reportedly conducting research into the microbiome with a view to bringing new products to market. Fortune magazine featured Danone’s research activities in 2015, reporting that the company has declared the microbiome one of the four ‘pillars’ of its research.
It is likely to be some time before the fruits of all this research translates into products on supermarket shelves but keeping guts healthy in the meantime are a host of foods which boast natural probiotic qualities. Fermented foods have really captured the popular imagination in recent years, like the vegetable dish kimchi, kombucha tea, dubbed the “tea of immortality” and kefir, the cultured yogurt drink from Eastern Europe.
Minneapolis’ Gyst bar is at the centre of innovation with fermentation. © Gyst
As a result, fermentation-themed venues are popping up around the world: Gyst is a Minneapolis bar-restaurant which showcases fermented ingredients like sauerkraut and kimchi, cultured yogurts and cheeses on its menu; Baroo in Santa Monica serves up a wide selection of fermented pickles with its rice bowls and Hackney-based Jarr Bar is London’s first kombucha bar.
Microbe-based concoctions are popping up on drinks menus too. At London’s Dandelyan bar, award-winning bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana’s cocktail creations feature fermented bitters and fermented peach. Lulu White, a cocktail bar in Paris, serves up drinks made with fermented syrups and shrubs, a fermented drinking vinegar.
JWT highlighted fermented and cultured foods as a trend to watch in our recent Food and Drink report. These ingredients are gaining wider acceptance as Western consumers develop more adventurous palates, alongside the healthy interest in the benefits of good bacteria, a positive sign for the future of microbiome-boosting products.
The growing interest in the microbiome reflects a wider consumer trend towards natural products and solutions, as JWT reported in our recent trend study, New Natural. People also have a more holistic approach to their health and see the wider connections between diet, fitness, wellbeing and beauty. In our New Natural study, 82% of our respondents in the UK and US agreed that what you put into your body has a greater effect on beauty than what you put on your skin.
As more and more consumers come to appreciate the link between digestive and overall health, the desire to keep the microbiome in optimum condition will exert a greater influence on diets and food shopping. After all, you are what you and your trillions of bacteria eat.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020