The microbiome has a significant influence on our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our environments. If our individual microbiome becomes unbalanced, we can experience serious health consequences. But the microbiome isn’t always so high stakes - in fact, there may be choices you are already making to directly support your microbiome without fully realizing it! It would most likely be through probiotic foods, like greek yogurt, or daily probiotics you may be taking as a supplement. As our understanding of the microbiome increases, our ability to apply that understanding to consumer products is similarly accelerating, potentially even faster than that of the microbiome therapeutics space. In this article, we walk through some of the consumer-focused areas that are utilizing microbiome science in their products.
If you need a reminder on exactly what the microbiome is, check out my first article in this series: Introduction to the Microbiome. If you’re wondering about the therapeutic potential of microbiome science, check out the second article.
Before we jump into the leading areas of applied microbiome science in consumer goods, let’s talk about why this is a phenomenon at all. We know that microbiome research has grown dramatically in the last decade especially. But what explains the jump from scientific research to our breakfast cereals?
To understand the interest of consumer goods companies in microbiome science, we need to look at a few industry trends. In particular, we should consider the rising public interest in both personalized goods and goods that are seen as natural, organic, or otherwise supporting wellness. Whereas consumers before the 2010s were content to choose their shampoo from the generic options at the local drug store, consumers of 2020 want their shampoo personally designed for their hair style, goals, and ambient humidity (based on zip code). Consumers are similarly paying significantly greater attention to a product’s ability to promote wellness, a somewhat vague term that typically evokes images of women doing yoga and eating chia seed bowls. In reality, products promoting wellness typically manifest as organic, responsibly-sourced, or natural ingredients.
Microbiome science enables companies to design products that play to these market trends. Our microbiomes are, by definition, highly personal. By sampling an individual’s microbiome, one can reasonably suggest alterations to diet and lifestyle that could increase their health. But even that level of precision is typically unnecessary - supplement companies can conduct the research to suggest what bacterial communities could help individuals broadly who are experiencing, for example, constipation, and market to those groups specifically. By targeting a specific group, consumer goods companies can offer “personalization” on a larger scale.
Similarly for wellness, companies can claim to either generally support, enhance, or simply not harm your naturally existing bacterial communities. This could be in the form of a probiotic drink that claims to promote a healthy gut or in body wash that claims to be “microbiome gentle.”
Just as the microbiome has become a fad in scientific research, so too has it captured the attention of consumers. Combine that with the trends in personalization and wellness, and it’s no wonder that the consumer microbiome industry is taking off.
First and most directly applying microbiome science to consumers are consumer health testing companies, like Viome and Zoe. These companies operate in a similar model to 23andMe, the popular consumer genetic testing companies. Customers send in a stool sample that is then sequenced to identify the microbial communities. They are then given access to portals or reports that suggest foods to prioritize, avoid, or have in moderation. These tests feed directly into the market desire for personalization and wellness -- customers get both an individualized profile and recommendations that enable them to make healthier choices.
It’s important to remember that these companies are new and so is microbiome science. While there is increasing evidence for the role that particular microbes play in health and wellness, no individual platform can capture the complexity of your gut and environment. You should always consult a physician if you are concerned about your gut health or planning on undertaking major lifestyle changes for health.
While microbiome testing may be the newest application of microbiome science to the consumer market, food is almost definitely the oldest.
There are three distinct levels in food microbiome science. First are fermented foods. Humans have been fermenting foods with the help of microbes for thousands of years -- every time one of our ancestors made cheese, or kimchi, or beer, they were taking advantage of natural fermentation processes. Many of these fermented foods have been recently shown to actively promote healthy gut bacteria. This is often because fermented foods contain beneficial enzymes produced by the bacteria during the fermentation processes that we either can’t produce or produce in only small quantities. By providing important nutritional variety, these fermented foods help support a stronger gut.
Some fermented foods remove the live bacterial cultures before they are given to the consumer, such as beer and wine. If a food retains the live bacterial colony, it can officially be classified as a probiotic food: this is the second level of applying microbiome science to food. Companies can advertise the beneficial effects of the live bacterial colonies, and consumers benefit from both the health effects as well as the personal feeling that they have actively made a healthy choice for their bodies. This is the technique employed by popular Kombucha drinks, which maintain live colonies in their bottles to be drunk by consumers.
The third level does not rely on fermentation at all, and in fact relies on an even deeper understanding of microbiome science. These foods are exploiting the more recent understanding of gut microbes and micronutrients - more commonly known as vitamins and minerals. Research is starting to delve into our reliance upon bacterial balance to produce certain critical micronutrients. Likewise, the micronutrients we provide to our gut through consumption impacts the bacterial species that proliferate. This creates a cycle in which the nutrients we eat influences the nutrients we can produce. Imbalance and one drives imbalance in the other. Companies are starting to focus on the role the micronutrients in their own ingredients may play on consumer health. For example, Kellogg’s released the Hi! Happy Inside cereal that emphasized the role that nutrient fiber plays in a healthy gut.
Whether it be traditional fermented foods, the inclusion of probiotic bacterial communities, or research on micronutrient profiles to provide healthier products, food companies are quickly embracing the opportunity presented by microbiome science to incorporate gut health into their marketing and R&D.
P.s. Don’t forget about your furry friend - microbiome-friendly pet foods are also hitting the market!
Consumer Health is very much focused on the wellness aspect of these market trends. We’ve already mentioned probiotics, or live bacterial communities that provide health benefits. There are also prebiotics, which are nutrients that your body cannot digest itself but rather are digested by bacterial species in your gut that are associated with health. By feeding those beneficial bacteria, prebiotics can also offer health benefits. If that’s not enough, there are also postbiotics, the byproducts of fermentation that can be delivered without live microbes.
All three of these ‘-biotics’ are sold as supplements for consumer health. In fact, the probiotics market alone was valued at almost $50 billion in 2018. This number, and the markets of pre- and post-biotics, as well - are only expected to grow. These typically come in pill form, like regular vitamins.
There is one particularly interesting area of growth for probiotics as it applies to personalization. The same technologies that enable customers to get recommended diets based on their microbiome profile are also enabling them to get personalized probiotics. Customers typically purchase a subscription service to have their personalized probiotics delivered on a regular basis. The scientific robustness and health impact of these services has yet to be meaningfully validated.
Beyond probiotics, consumer health is also exploiting microbiome science simply to make existing products healthier. One great example is baby formula. Scientists are studying the enzymes present in natural breastmilk and infant microbiomes to more intelligently design formula products. This will help ensure that all babies are developing robust microbiomes from an early age, regardless of receiving breast milk or formula.
The BPC industry is capitalizing on consumer trends to utilize microbiome science in delivering natural, wellness-focused products. Although they frequently receive less attention in the media, your skin and mouth both support robust and critical microbiome communities, just like your gut. Interestingly, you have different communities of microbes based on the different areas of your body. This suggests there is unique opportunity to study the most beneficial microbes depending on location on the human body, which has implications for different products.
Beauty companies are actively aware of the growing consumer interest in a skin microbiome. As we discussed in the therapeutics article, the microbiome can have significant implications in skin diseases such as psoriasis and rosacea. But it plays a role in even minor conditions such as mild acne or skin dryness. Thus leading cosmetics companies such as L’Oréal are investing huge resources in developing microbiome-friendly and microbiome-enhancing products. There are already lines, such as Mother Dirt, which utilize live bacterial communities to help support healthy skin. Not to be left out, the oral microbiome is likely to catch up to skin in its future products. Zendium toothpaste is already making claims about supporting beneficial oral bacteria.
The consumer industry has made it clear that it is ready and willing to embrace microbiome science in the development of new products, and customers are clambering for the level of insight provided by microbiome science to their personal health and wellness. As the science is further refined, consumer industries will struggle with scaling increasingly personalized science and products. But if successful, they will be able to offer more effective and healthier options for their customers. We can ultimately hope this leads to a healthier and more informed consumer base overall.
Cover Photo: “Reduced diversity and altered composition of the gut microbiome in individuals with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome,” The Microbe Discovery Project, 03-Jul- 2016.
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October 12, 2020