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Gut Health: From Digestion to Mood Management

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This article originally appeared in Ingredienti Alimentari journal.

As demand for health and wellness solutions continues to rise, functional foods are gaining traction. However, there has been a notable shift from narrow functional benefits to a more holistic approach that considers the wellbeing of both body and mind. An excellent example of this shift is the focus on gut health and the intricate gut-brain axis. Previously associated primarily with digestion, research now associates gut health with crucial aspects such as energy levels, mood, and cognitive function. This evolving understanding is paving the way for the integration of gut health in functional food positionings as well as personalised nutrition strategies for improved health outcomes.

Unlocking the power of the gut-brain axis

For years, gut health has been primarily associated with digestion, mainly through the effects of probiotics and fibre, although probiotics have also been broadly associated with immunity by many consumers. However, there has been a paradigm shift in understanding the significance of gut health, recognising its impact on overall wellbeing.

The connection between gut health, brain function, and mood regulation through the gut-brain axis is an area gaining greater attention in the food industry

Indeed, research continues to unveil links of gut health to various aspects of physical and mental health, including the immune system, inflammation, and mood regulation. As a result, many consumers are increasingly seeking food products that promote a healthy gut and overall wellbeing.

Gut Health Chart 1.svgIn response, the food industry has been developing new products that cater for this growing demand. This has led to the increased popularity of probiotics, prebiotic fibres and symbiotics - a combination of probiotics and prebiotics. Another emerging area of interest is postbiotics, which are metabolic by-products of probiotics. These compounds are believed to have health benefits and are currently being researched to better understand their potential.

While probiotics are widespread in the food industry, through fortification or found naturally in fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso or pickles, the use of postbiotics is in its infancy within the food industry and can have a benefit over live probiotics due to being more stable and frequently dehydrated. This enables them to be included in processed and heat-treated products without the same constraints as probiotic stability. It also means that both the ingredient and the end product are likely to have a longer shelf life without sacrificing their effectiveness.

MIM Habits’s postbiotic bread offers glimpse into the future of gut health innovation

Spanish food tech startup MIM Habits released the UK's first postbiotic bread in March 2023 after its launch in Spain in June 2022. The organic range includes four different sourdough loaves, each specifically targeting a different area of health; stress, immunity, bowel transit, and hypertension. The MIM COMPLEX formula, which is present in all four varieties, is a patented postbiotic complex produced by combining 10 different microorganisms. This formula helps to regulate the gut microbiota and increases the absorption of nutrients. The postbiotic bread can be purchased online and MIM recommends two slices a day for 12 weeks to see benefits. This development is interesting in view of the negative image that bread consumption has in the West due to its high carbohydrate content. For example, retail value sales of bread are predicted to decline in Western Europe and North America with -0.3% and -0.1% CAGRs respectively, over the forecast period.

Despite several products emerging, postbiotics remain a niche in the food industry with very limited availability on the market and low consumer understanding. However, they have the potential to be the next major trend in the gut health space, capitalising on categories from powder milk to bakery and snacks.

Gut health to play a pivotal role in consumers’ personalised nutrition journeys

Gut health is increasingly recognised as a crucial factor in personalised nutrition. The complex ecosystem of microorganisms residing in the gut, known as the gut microbiota, plays a vital role in digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune function, but can also affect mood, cognition, and mental health. This growing understanding has led to the integration of gut health analysis in personalised nutrition approaches, enabling tailored dietary recommendations and interventions that aim to optimise the gut microbiota composition for improved health outcomes. 

39% of consumers in Europe feel extremely or very comfortable using online or app-based services for personalised nutrition recommendations

Source: Euromonitor International’s Health and Nutrition Survey 2023

One standout solution in this space is Zoe, a UK health tech startup that empowers individuals to unlock insights into their gut and circulatory health, enabling the creation of a tailored nutrition plan. Zoe offers at-home test kits, including finger-prick blood tests, glucose monitors, and faeces tests, enabling individuals to establish their unique metabolic baseline and gain knowledge about their gut microbiota. By leveraging personalised insights and an AI-powered app, Zoe provides real-time guidance on customised meal recommendations, including the most suitable foods that promote the growth and wellbeing of each individual’s microbiota. Zoe's strong focus on individual uniqueness resonates with health-conscious consumers, leading to substantial demand as evident from the extensive waiting list to join the programme. The company recently expanded its series B funding in December 2022 to further support its growth and development.

As scientific research delves deeper into unravelling the intricate connection between the gut microbiota and overall wellbeing, gut health will play an increasingly important role in personalised nutrition strategies. Additionally, continuous research holds the potential to unveiling fresh perspectives on how nutritional interventions targeting the gut microbiota could effectively impact diverse health outcomes, spanning from improved digestion to enhanced mood regulation.

Learn more about personalisation in our report, Personalisation and Digital Wellness in Food and Nutrition.


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