KANSAS CITY — Many health benefits are attributed to a healthy digestive system, notably immune system support, respiratory support, cognition, vitality and skin health. But it is currently not possible to target and activate such benefits with precision. Today, the focus is on the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut to promote overall wellness, but one day, as more is learned, consumers may be able to personalize their gut health to activate specific benefits.

Moving beyond a mass market, overall gut health approach without the benefit of personalized nutrition will be nearly impossible. Too many individual factors influence gut health, including life stage, diet, medications, physical activity and other lifestyle choices.

This point was made during a panel discussion at the Institute of Food Technologists’ FIRST virtual conference earlier this year.

“We’re really just starting to learn about the human gut microbiome, and there is a lot of research dollars put toward that industry into figuring out how various ingredients can interact with an individual’s unique gut microbiome to then have a cause-and-effect relationship to ward off potential indications,” said Darren Streiler, managing director at ADM Ventures, the corporate venture arm of ADM, Chicago.

A report published Nov. 11 by Lux Research, Boston, said that over the past decade microbiome research has accelerated, emerging as a hotspot for innovation, given its potential to impact several industries in the food and health value chains. But despite significant startup activity, developers have barely scratched the surface when it comes to aligning science and product development with the microbiome, according to the report.

This lack of coordination is changing. For example, researchers at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln received a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health earlier this year to develop computational models to identify carbohydrate-active enzymes in the microbiome able to build, modify and break down various complex carbohydrates.

The enzymes are made by gut bacteria to fully digest fibers. Bacterial digestion of the fibers produce metabolites, such as short-chain fatty acids, that have an influence on the human hosts’ health.

“We aim to develop machine learning tools to help predict which human individuals may respond to which dietary fibers by analyzing their gut microbiome DNA sequences,” said Yanbin Yin, associate professor of food science at the university.

Another example is Sun Genomics, a business based in San Diego that sells personalized probiotics that are recommended to customers based on a personalized gut health test. The custom-formulated probiotic includes probiotic strains, prebiotics and natural botanicals that all work together as a positive community to support an individual’s microflora, according to the company.

As research generates greater knowledge about personalized nutrition and businesses bring scale to the category, opportunities for food and beverage makers will emerge. The market is on the cusp of delivering personalized functional benefits through food. This advance will significantly grow the market for functional foods and ingredients.