The human digestive system is made up of trillions of microorganisms that have a significant and direct impact on digestion, heath, and wellbeing. Ensuring that this combination of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, known collectively as the gut microbiome, remains healthy is essential to maintaining good holistic health.
As more research emerges highlighting the significance of the gut microbiome, there is growing interest from scientists, food manufacturers and consumers alike into the ways in which the microbiome can be influenced and engineered to better perform and thwart the development of life-threatening diseases such as cancers and autoimmune disorders.
Dutch food research company, NIZO, has launched a project with the aim of providing a screening and modelling tool that supports the selection of fermented products with demonstrable health benefits in specific target populations. Once complete, this research will help the participants to develop new products and support the benefits of existing products in the digestive health space.
Restoring a disturbed gut microbiome via fermented drinks
Partly funded by the government’s TKI Agri & Food initiative, the project will seek to identify the properties of fermented drinks that support the restoration of a disturbed gut microbiome.
“An imbalanced microbiota in the gut (gut dysbiosis) is associated with a broad range of human health disorders, including gastrointestinal and metabolic diseases (for example, diabetes and obesity). The influence of gut microbiota composition and activity on host metabolism and immunity, together with the fact that the microbiota can be modified, have led to increased interest in developing approaches to restore a healthy microbiome,” said Alwine Kardinaal, expertise group leader for nutrition and health at NIZO.
NIZO has initiated the consortium and will shortly submit a proposal for public co-funding which will look to match the investments of the private partners.
Four publicly undisclosed global players in the dairy foods, probiotic drinks, and fermentation sectors have already decided to participate, yet the opportunity for private partners, start-ups, scale-ups and established companies with a wide range of fermented drinks (plant-based in particular) to contribute and be part of this consortium remains open.
“We are especially interested to include innovative companies that develop and market non-dairy fermented drinks, that would like to obtain deeper insights in the health-beneficial properties of their own, and other fermented products, for specific target populations,” Kardinaal said.
Participating companies will have exclusive first-hand access to the findings on the screening approach, which will then be shared outside the consortium on completion of the research. Some of the results, related to proprietary products, will remain confidential.
Digestive health: high consumer interest, low consumer knowledge
With the prevalence of digestive health related issues on the rise globally, consumers are increasingly seeking products that support and enhance the function of the gut microbiome. FMCG Gurus data shows that over half (56%) of global consumers plan to address their digestive health over the next twelve months, taking a more proactive rather than preventative approach to their health.
The majority of consumers (67%) are well-aware of the concept of bacteria within the digestive system and are attracted to products and ingredients that are regarded as being high in beneficial bacteria.
Nevertheless, this same research shows that consumer awareness of the gut microbiome is generally low, with less than one in five consumers globally, and one in ten in Europe, saying that they know what the gut microbiome is.
Fermented food and drinks are booming in popularity
One sector that has exploded in popularity in recent years is the global fermented food and beverage market, which is set to witness a growth rate of 5.6% over the next decade. Within this space, products such as kombucha, kefir and sauerkraut which claim to boost immune and digestive health have proven particularly popular amongst the growing cohort of health-conscious consumers.
The past decade has seen a marked increase in global patent activity related to fermented food and ingredients, peaking at 990 patent families in 2017, up from 202 in 2001, Mintel data shows.
Yet whilst the functional market for digestive health and consumer awareness around it continues to grow, more needs to be done to educate consumers about specific products and ingredients, and how they contribute to a healthy lifestyle, according to FMCG Gurus.