SupplySide West Preview: What’s on the Microbiome Horizon?


Probiotics Workshop guest speaker Sunita Kumar gave us a birds’-eye view of what we can expect from the emerging microbiome sphere moving forward.

Photo © Marchal

Nutritional Outlook spoke to Sunita Kumar, an industry consultant, functional nutritionist, and founder of consultant Nourish Nutrition Inc., one of the speakers at the upcoming October 9th Probiotics Workshop at SupplySide West.

The Workshop is titled “From Microbiome to Market Success,” and Kumar gave us a birds’-eye view of what we can expect from the emerging microbiome sphere moving forward.


Nutritional Outlook: It’s been said that what we stand to learn from research initiatives on the human microbiome, such as the National Institutes for Health’s Human Microbiome Project, could change the face of not only the probiotic supplement market but also how we regard the role of the microbiome in maintaining good health in general. Can you comment on how far and wide understanding is currently about the microbiome and its role in regulating health? Has this understanding reached consumers yet?

Sunita Kumar: I would say that, from a scientific point of view, it’s a very interesting time because it seems like every day there’s a new learning or study that’s conducted with respect to the Microbiome Project. In terms of learning about applications to different areas of health, it started out with digestive health; now it’s moved into disease prevention, cognitive health, and individual health applications.

There is a lot to look forward to, and it will have implications on the probiotic supplement market at that time. We’re really just on the forefront of understanding the microbiome and its role in regulating health.

I would say that right now that level of understanding is still in the scientific community and has yet to trickle out into the consumer language; in terms of finding connections and applications from a consumer standpoint, there’s still a long way to go. Right now, the leaders in this space are more focused on just picking a few benefits and not really trying to do too much work with connecting all of that to the product because I think that’s a bit much for consumers to understand right now. We’re still understanding it from an academic perspective.


To date, what would you say are the most interesting and significant things that we have learned in terms of the relation of the microbiome to specific areas of health or disease management? What have been the most interesting applications?

I think it’s threefold. If you’re in [the field of ] alternative health, the idea of the gut-brain connection is not a new concept, but for that to become more mainstream and to really understand that that has such significant implications to our health, I think that’s a very significant growth pattern we’ll see. More and more, consumers are accepting that as fact.

Some other key areas are the role of the microbiome in relation to cognitive health. That’s exciting for a number of reasons but also because it might have applications that come out of it because there are supplement applications for mood, motivation, learning ability, and children-specific applications.

And then, also, disease prevention, both using microbiome applications towards increased immunity as well as decreased inflammation, which are two huge areas of disease prevention.


Can you outline what the microbiome gut-brain axis is for our readers?

Essentially, if you think about it, we have a second brain in our stomach that’s connected to our brain. For a long time, that’s been kind of ignored.

A lot of our serotonin and neurotransmitter production actually occurs at a greater level in the gut versus in the actual brain. So if there is inflammation, if there is overgrowth of bacteria, if there’s undergrowth of bacteria, that has a huge impact on obviously health in general but specifically on our cognitive health because a lot of the neurotransmitters such as dopamine or serotonin that are responsible for motivation for learning, for mood-if the gut is not well, they will not be at an ideal level in the body.

Basically, think of it as a two-way street. And we’ve really only been focusing on one end of the street for a very long time.


How heavily has recent microbiome research already begun to impact the dietary supplement/probiotic industry? You said that microbiome understanding is not really in the consumer sphere yet and that microbiome applications are just beginning to impact the dietary supplement industry. Are there any specific dietary supplement application examples you can provide beyond digestive health, which has been known for awhile?

Where I’m seeing the most applications specifically for probiotics, dairy still dominates the global market. Consumers do understand that dairy has positive probiotics and good bacteria. So that’s still the lion’s share of the market.

After that, it’s a lot of functional foods, so chocolates or things like that that have probiotics in them. I think that where the applications are from a dietary supplement point of view is really going to stem out of additional research.

As there is more understanding of the microbiome, scientists will be able to isolate specific strains of bacteria that, in theory, can help address specific health conditions. Once you have that, then you’re going to have specific tailored probiotics and probiotic supplements that are addressing certain conditions.


Do you mean products that are more tailored than they are now? Because we do already have some strain-specific probiotics out there.

There are. There’s Lactobacillus and a few others, but they’re not super connected to benefit or to specific disorder. There are certain bacterial strains that are known to be beneficial, and so there’s marketing around those, but there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of specific bacterial strains [that can say], “This will specifically prevent this…” or “This specifically works on IBS” or women’s vaginal health or children’s cognitive health-that kind of thing. We’ll start to see more-specific, benefit-driven probiotics.


Can you point to any specific health or product areas for which you think microbiome research will reveal some very interesting findings in the near future?

It’s hard to say, because sometimes you think trends are going to hit sooner than they do, specifically when it comes to consumer health. But I would say that there are a couple of areas in which I think we can anticipate products coming out.

First, with additional delivery vehicles. Traditionally, probiotics had been in dairy; now, you’re going to see it in functional foods, beverages, supplements, even more so than you are now.

Second, in applications for beauty care, personal care, and skin care-things like pet care, toothpaste, skincare lines that are specifically using probiotics as a benefit.

Third, cognitive health. I think that is going to be something that you’re going to see once we have a little more solid background on cognitive health and probiotics. You’re going to see a lot of cognitive-health antiaging supplements going on, and then some other additional applications that can go in a variety of areas or applications for children.

We do see some probiotics out there in the marketplace for children’s probiotics, women’s health, and then specific subgroups for immunity. For athletes, for example, it could be sports supplements that are focused on keeping athletes well so that they can stay at the top of their game for peak performance.

I definitely see those as the areas: antiaging, women’s health, cognitive health, skincare health, and personal care, as well as seeing those in different delivery vehicles than you currently are right now.

One of the things that I’m going to be talking about at my presentation-something that we’re going to hear more about with consumers-is the concept of the enteric nervous system, which is the brain-gut connection, and its application not just on emotions (so stress and emotional factors), but also on gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

IBS is a huge opportunity, as a lot of people suffer from that, and it’s a disorder that has emotional components. So oftentimes, people who suffer from IBS are prescribed antianxiety medication or antidepressants because they’ve found those to be beneficial. So I think a very interesting application will be how do probiotics factor into treatment of that specific condition, because it’s a huge opportunity.

It’s a really cool topic. I think we’re going to see a lot more on that. When? That remains to be seen in terms of how readily consumers are willing to adopt this information, but I think as more and more science is done that lets us point to specific benefits, the consumers don’t really need to understand the science. As long as we have proven benefits that we can launch products against, then I think that will be where the growth is. It will really depend on what specifics that we get coming out of the research.

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