“Cultivating our microbial gardens”: The food industry’s opportunity to help consumers tailor their diets for gut health
05 Aug 2019 --- Expert insights on probiotics and fermented foods is what Maria Marco, Ph.D., of the University of California Davis, will bring to the Irish Kerry Health & Nutrition Institute (KHNI) with her recent appointment to its Scientific Advisory Council. As consumers increasingly turn towards health-benefiting foods, the rise of products that tout gut-health-boosting properties has been notable across market categories. Reflected in increased fiber NPD, as well as fermented foods such as kombucha and kefir, the space is brimming with potential.
Set up in 2015, the KHNI aims to translate the latest developments in nutrition science and policy into actionable insights for the food and beverage industry. The Scientific Advisory Council to the institute further acts as a bridge between industry and academia, reporting on the active world of research to facilitate a robust corporate and academic connection.
Microbiome research and experts within the space can help pave the way for the food and beverage industry, as well as nutrition and even pharma. It also has the potential to revolutionize medicine in many ways, such as helping to comprehend certain chronic diseases that are still not yet properly understood. However, an important consideration is that this exciting space stays rooted in science, as opposed to consumer hype.
In what ways can the microbiome space inform food product development?
Some of the most exciting opportunities in the microbiome and digestive health space reside in the foods themselves. As society is moving away from the concept of better living through chemistry, towards better living through biology, explorations in the microbiome space hold potential. My work in fermented foods provides one avenue to get to these novel pathways. Initially, only microorganisms can bring these unique features, but we can evolve into producing specific flavors or textures using them. Now, this work is not new, but there has been a recent evolution and a renaissance in microbiology. Everybody is taking a new look and building on basic principles. This is one aspect I can contribute to. Our work is primarily concentrated on fermented dairy foods, such as yogurt and kefir, and plant-based foods, such as olives and sauerkraut.
Which specific areas hold potential for food applications?
As part of my research, we have been studying the types of microbes present in fermented foods, and we are finding a lot of genetic variation in species of lactic acid bacteria. We are just discovering some of these species. We know nothing about some of them – some of the general features may be common, but they also do have specializations.
Speaking of health benefits, how important is the nutritional aspect of fermented foods?
In the US, there is a strong impression that fermented foods, such as kombucha, kefir and yogurt, are healthy. But in reality, we have very few human studies and we don’t have solid footing yet for a solid nutritional recommendation. The key nutritional question with fermented foods is whether they provide health benefits beyond their starting ingredient. For example, does the fermentation and microbial growth process provide extra health benefits when eating sauerkraut, as opposed to just a head of cabbage?
Regarding this lack of evidence, how can we further delineate microbe or probiotic efficacy?
There are two ways to approach this issue. One would be looking at human clinical studies and conducting more of them. The other would be breaking down the components into its nascent parts. So, what do the microorganisms do to the milk or to the cabbage in the fermentation process? How do they alter the properties of foods so that you get something more? Once this is understood, the specifics can be put into fermented foods, or into different food forms.
Geographical variations in regulation of this space must be considered. How can this be approached?
In Europe there is a different regulatory space than in the US and we see different swings of the pendulum happening. There is an opportunity even though we are restricted in Europe from calling microbes probiotics. For example, there are ways to go about researching yogurt through academic studies to address whether there is a foundational benefit from either the foods or the microbes. We can use the knowledge that we already have, as well as what we are still collecting about beneficial microbes, and apply this to foods and inform the consumer without having to use the words “probiotics.”
Moving forward, where do the main opportunities for the food industry lie in regards to gut health?
How our diets are setting the tone for our entire lives, from infancy to old age, is the most important consideration. In changing our gut microbiota, which goes beyond probiotics or living microbes, a key dietary component will be fiber.
A full version of this interview will feature in the July/August edition of The World of Food Ingredients.
By Laxmi Haigh
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