Nutrition and the microbiome: What’s on the research horizon?

Robby Gardner

Robby Gardner is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, specializing in fresh produce and health food ingredients.

How researchers and product manufacturers are working to expand our knowledge of this intimate relationship.

The collections of microbes that live in the human gut are increasingly considered to have profound importance in human health. From this notion, manufacturers are creating health products designed to foster beneficial microbial environments in the guts of their consumers, and scientists remain committed to better understanding the relationship between microbes and general health.

In order to tackle this feat, manufacturers and scientists have multiple strategies to product design and research, from looking within natural materials to utilizing highly sophisticated, new technologies. If we look at industry as a whole, we can see many of these methods in action today.

Plants and Diet

In the plant kingdom, scientists are finding an increasingly clear link between diet, gut microbes, and health.

In a unique study that was recently published, scientists analyzed the dietary habits and gut microbes of more than 1000 volunteers in the United Kingdom and United States over the course of several weeks.1 In doing so, they identified a wide variety of microbes and four classes of foods: 1) healthy plant foods (e.g., spinach, seeds, tomatoes, broccoli), 2) less-healthy plant foods (e.g., juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains), 3) healthy animal-based foods (e.g., eggs, white and oily fish), and 4) less-healthy animal-based foods (e.g., meat pies, bacon, dairy desserts). The scientists found strong associations between favorable microbial species and healthy foods (animal or plant) and unfavorable microbial species and unhealthy foods (animal or plant). Furthermore, the presence of favorable and unfavorable microbial species was found to be correlated with healthy or unhealthy cardiovascular health markers, respectively.

To their surprise, the researchers discovered that numerous microbial species identified were previously undocumented in scientific literature, providing strong indication that there is still much to learn about the links between diet, the microbiome, and health.

Student Research Grants

Each year, the dairy products giant Danone North America (Broomfield, CO) builds upon its own pipeline of research in the form of student research grants. Scientific knowledge gleaned from these projects—which focus on the gut microbiome, yogurt, and probiotics—directly supports the company’s vast portfolio of probiotic and fermented dairy products and enables Danone to maintain its scientific leadership in the broad category wherein dairy products can ferment in the body and foster desirable microbial populations.

“The Danone North America Fellowship Grant has continued to enable up-and-coming scientists making strides in understanding how the gut microbiome, probiotics, and yogurt help support and maintain human health and wellness,” says Kristie Leigh, RD, the company’s senior manager of scientific affairs. She notes that the grant’s focus has changed focus over the years as the health and wellness space expands, with a growing focus in recent years on immune health.

Previous Danone grants have been awarded for the study of how gut bacteria and food influence brain development, how a mother’s gut microbiome can influence baby neurological development, and whether there is a particular time in a person’s 24-hour cycle when probiotics are best able to remain in the gut microbiota community.

This year’s grant recipients had the option of investigating topics such as probiotic and prebiotic functionality in the gut as a mediator of heart disease and metabolic syndrome, or if early-life microbial components can influence obesity in children. The growing body of research collected through each year’s projects influences how Danone thinks about the gut microbiome and how it develops its products.

Enhancing Research with Technology

A 2020 merger of International Flavors & Fragrances and DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, now collectively known as IFF Health (New York City), positioned the two companies to be a global leader in consumer ingredients. Their combined portfolios of IFF flavors, fragrances, specialty extracts, and DuPont’s Howaru probiotic line are indeed complementary. Yet, to strengthen the new business further, IFF Health recently announced a partnership with MRM Health (Ghent, Belgium), a company that develops therapeutics based on the human gut microbiome.

Utilizing advanced technologies, MRM can isolate bacterial strains from the intestines of healthy individuals in order to create formulations intended to restore healthy bacterial populations in humans. Resulting products can be evaluated with SHIME (Simulator of the Human Intestinal Microbial Ecosystem), a technology that simulates human metabolism and provides a glimpse of how ingredients interact with the intestinal microbiome.

Sebastien Guery, IFF’s vice president of global R&D tech scouting and venturing, says the technology platform will help IFF bring new solutions to market based on a better understanding of bacterial ecosystems of defined and optimized composition, adding that “these ecosystems are expected to lead to robust and superior functional responses.”

Through its collaboration with MRM Health, IFF Health is currently exploring probiotics and the microbiome in relation to metabolic health, gastrointestinal disorders, immune health, and microbiome modulation in early life. The research will also support a growing understanding postbiotics, the substances produced by probiotics during fermentation in the gut.

Mood and Sleep

Though probiotics and prebiotics have demonstrated some commercial success in the last several years, the market for these ingredients is still largely underdeveloped. A great many health conditions are likely influenced by the gut, and, theoretically, they can be influenced by ingestible ingredients that alter the gut’s bacterial community.

Seeing a need and unique market opportunity, ingredients provider Optibiotix Health (York, UK) has decided to expand its research on probiotics and prebiotics into mood and sleep. In cooperation with the University of Southampton and the Edmund Mach Foundation in Italy, Optibiotix is exploring how its branded ingredients, including prebiotics and probiotics, can support the body in managing sleep, stress, and anxiety. It’s based on an assumed and studied relationship between the gut microbiome and neurobiochemistry.

“Both sleep restriction and gut microbiome dysbiosis have been linked to metabolic disorders,” says the company’s R&D Director Sofia Kolida, PhD. “Recent studies in this area have identified that the gut microbiome has an important role in regulating not just the gut ‘clock’ but also our circadian rhythms through metabolites produced within the gastrointestinal tract, including bile acids, serotonin, dopamine, GABA, short-chain fatty acids, and vitamin B12.” Kolida says many of these same metabolites impact stress and anxiety by regulating inflammation and cellular metabolism, which are intricately linked to cardiovascular health and obesity.

Optibiotix and its research partners intend to conduct a double-blind, placebo-controlled human study. The company’s hallmark ingredients are its SlimBiome prebiotic fiber blend, WellBiome functional fiber and mineral blend, and LPLDL patented probiotic.

Viral Futures

The impact of the microbiome on human health seems almost limitless. Increasingly, science suggests that the gut’s bacterial community can even impact outcomes of viral infections.

Earlier this year, probiotic industry leaders such as IFF Health, Danone, Lallemand (Mirabel, Canada), ADM (Chicago), and the International Probiotics Association published a joint scientific review of the existing research on the microbiome and common viral infections, including HIV, HPV, influenza, SARS CoV-2, and upper respiratory tract infections.2

“The prospect of being able to bolster antiviral immunity through manipulation of the microbiome in these instances is enticing; however, causal relationships largely remain to be proven in human subjects,” they concluded.

The intestine microbiome, they write, appears to operate as a sort of signaling hub, capable of affecting host metabolism, immunity, and response to infection. Similarly, the vaginal microbiome appears “highly relevant to viral pathogens, such as HIV and HPV, and thus represents a novel target to reduce the devastating burden of these diseases.”

While probiotics are well studied in viral diarrhea and upper respiratory tract infections, their ability to manage viral infections requires more research but appears promising.

References

  1. Asnicar F et al. “Microbiome connections with host metabolism and habitual diet from 1,098 deeply phenotyped individuals.” Nature Medicine, vol. 27, no. 2 (February 2021): 321-332
  2. Harper A et al. “Viral infections, the microbiome, and probiotics.” Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology. Published online February 12, 2021.