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Nathan Gray is the Co-Founder and CEO of Advanced Biotics, a microbiome biotech start-up based in Wageningen, the Netherlands. Nathan’s scientific training is in Human Biosciences, while his postgraduate studies focused on science communication and journalism. Nathan spent more than a decade as an editor and analyst for leading industry publications and conferences covering the food technology and nutrition science sector. He then set up Nutraceutic, a consultancy focused on strategic consultancy and project management in the specialist nutrition and microbiome sector. Last year, Nathan co-founded Advanced Biotics, a company with a mission to create tasty microbiome-positive foods and drinks for the mass market.
One business success
- The last year has been a real whirlwind for me as we launched Advanced Biotics, and worked hard to bring our vision from a pipedream to reality. We spent almost two years searching for the best ingredients and figuring out the most effective way to combine them into a format that worked. Since we officially launched in late 2021, we have been blown away by the enthusiasm and reaction to our company and its mission. Within a few months of launching, we are about to ship the first ever batch of our Daily Microbiome Booster, have already been shortlisted as Start-up of the Year in the NutraIngredients Awards, and hope to take our next steps into retail very soon.
Two challenges for the sector
- Consumer understanding: while consumer understanding of (and demand for) probiotics, prebiotics, and the other microbiome (or ‘gut friendly’) ingredients continues to grow, confusion also remains high – and even those that seem to be well informed are often not as ‘in the know’ as they believe. I spend several hours every week looking over Facebook groups, Reddit posts, health forums, etc… and they are all filled with self-proclaimed gurus dispensing ‘advice’ that isn’t backed by science. The truth is that even after decades of research and thousands of papers, we still know very little about the microbiome. We’ve learned a lot for sure, but such is the complexity of our microbial ecosystem that anyone attempting to answer one reasonably simple question about its workings will inevitably take many years … and uncover several more complex and deep-burning questions while attempting to do so. In a world where shoppers want transparency and certainty, and the industry is constantly seeking the ‘next big thing, the biggest challenge is striking that balance of understanding – to me, the key is keeping messages simple (but not simplistic), and not looking to bamboozle the consumer with lots of new terms. Despite all of the confusion, there are certain ingredients and strains that have great clinical data, but they are lost in a sea of non-specific advice, poor communication and a lack of understanding.
- Breaking out of supplements: at every conference or industry expo I’ve been to in recent memory, there’s been talk of helping probiotics and prebiotics shift out of the supplement space and into more general foods and drinks. But, from probiotic tea and gut-friendly orange juice to brownies packed with chicory root fibre, there’s nothing but a trail of false starts and products that have failed to capture major market share. Why? It’s very difficult to put a traditional probiotic or prebiotic into a food or drink – at least without the help of complex and expensive encapsulations and delivery systems or without impacting the taste or texture. Supplements and pills are simple; they have high margins and relatively good understanding from shoppers. Foods are complex; they require expensive encapsulations for a probiotic, have thin margins that get swallowed up easily, and when you put a probiotic strain in a tea bag, who isn’t thinking “What on earth?”. It’s a tough nut to crack … but as validation of new ingredients continues, people start to consider new options. We are finding ways.
Three forecasts for the sector
- Better synbiotic combinations: for years we’ve seen companies selling ‘synbiotic’ combinations of probiotics and prebiotics. These are a mixture of live beneficial bacteria (probiotic) with a food source that is known to be beneficial for bacteria and the microbiome, usually a fibre (prebiotic). The idea is that if you can supply bacteria into the gut, you should also give some ‘fertilizer’ to help them grow. Right now, however, these are generally any two ingredients that can be classed as a probiotic and prebiotic – and very few are truly ‘synbiotic’ in that they help each other. It would be akin to giving you seeds for one type of flower to plant in your garden but giving you the plant food for a different type of flower. You might very well have that flower in your garden, and you might well benefit from it … but it’s not the synergy you were promised. There’s a huge effort to understand these systems right now, and to provide true synbiotics - they are coming.
- Next-gen strains: when we talk about probiotics and ‘friendly bacteria’, most people understand the concept. Many have even heard of things like Lactobacillus … maybe the L. Casai in Yakult that Dr Shirota famously identified? These are the strains of bacteria that we’ve known were good for decades – even hundreds of years. But what about Akkermansia muciniphila, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii or Hafnia alvei? These strains are much more recently discovered but have growing data to suggest they are central to our gut microbiome ecosystem and play an important role in health and wellness. Look out for their growing importance and commercial availability.
- The rise of postbiotics: the term ‘postbiotic’ has become a bit of a buzzword in the last 18 months … but there’s some solid science behind why. Put simply, and without getting into an ongoing debate about definitions, postbiotics are dead (often heat-killed) microbes. Why the hype? Because we’re starting to see that bacteria don’t have to be alive to have their beneficial effects on health … and killing them makes them much easier to use in all sorts of commercial food manufacturing. It’s important to note that the effects of a live and dead bacteria can be very different though – and depend on the strain. Some work when they are alive but do nothing when they are killed, others have been shown to work even better when they are killed. Right now, we don’t know why … or which strains are better alive or dead. But we do know some heat-killed strains work, and there’s already growing clinical evidence for their benefits, so look out for growth in postbiotic strains in the future.