How does microbiome research affect NPD?

16 Dec 2019

The microbiome’s role in overall health has been in the spotlight, and now research investments from major food and drink companies signal that the concept is entering the mainstream. What does this mean for new product development?

Most recently, Nestlé has announced a partnership with University of California San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation, joining other industry giants in their exploration of how the microbiome – and gut health in particular – might influence other health indicators.

How does microbiome research affect NPD?
Could increased microbial diversity boost performance - or reduce disease risk?

For years, the microbiome was discussed primarily by probiotics companies looking to sell products and ingredients for digestive health. However, emerging research suggests a link between an individual’s unique microbiome and conditions including obesity, intestinal diseases, and even mental health problems and cancer. While gut health indications are still the largest target for probiotics, others have come to the fore in some markets. In Asia, for instance, there is a growing market for infant nutrition products with probiotics, intended to improve immunity and prevent allergies.

Now researchers and food manufacturers are working together to answer the question: what is the best way to nourish the trillions of bacteria that inhabit the gut? As well as Nestlé’s latest partnership, other companies also have collaborated with research institutes to broaden their understanding – and their NPD potential – including Danone Nutricia Research, which works with Wageningen scientists in the Netherlands on gut health, and DuPont Nutrition & Health, which has partnered with INRA (the French National Institute for Agricultural Research), among others.

Such partnerships often have aimed to identify specific probiotic strains with specific health targets. But while probiotics enjoy a strong reputation with consumers, they are not always the most effective option for improving gut health. In Europe, they also face a major regulatory barrier as such products have no permitted health claims. Proving a significant health benefit among healthy people is notoriously difficult, especially as everyone has a unique gut bacteria composition that changes with diet and health status. Probiotics do not affect all people equally.

Some researchers have suggested that even without a condition-specific health claim for particular probiotic strains, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) could consider a health claim for ingredients that increase gut microbial diversity, given that increased diversity repeatedly has been linked with lower disease risk. This is where partnerships between industry and academia could hold huge potential.

Against this background, certain fibres and prebiotic ingredients have become increasingly appealing; they can feed the beneficial bacteria we know already exist in the gut, and help them to thrive. And some researchers also believe that polyphenols like those found in olive oil, dark chocolate and red wine may have a prebiotic effect. Others have suggested that prebiotic-rich fermented foods could be tailored for sports nutrition, as athletes are known to have some of the most diverse gut microbiota.

For now, defining a mechanism of action is one of the big unanswered questions for those studying ingredients’ effects on the microbiome, and partnerships help draw on a broader knowledge base than a particular company’s ingredients or target consumers. In addition, advances in formulating gut-friendly feed for pets and livestock could help trigger new developments in food.
Research into how foods affect our microbiome is still at a relatively early stage, but pooling knowledge from industry and academia seems a smart way to view the issue from multiple angles and, ultimately, find new ways to improve human health.