Hot topics at Probiota Asia and Growth Asia 2022: check it here if you missed it

The report of the main topics highlighted at the event on 12 October 2022 related to Probiotics, Prebiotics and the Microbiome.
Table of Contents

This year, Probiota Asia and Growth Asia joined to deliver in one day the updates of the sector in its fastest-growing region. To those who could not be there, or those who did not take notes for posterity, here is your chance to catch up.

Market and consumers trends

Angela Brady, external innovation and partnering director at H&H – Health & Happiness – opened the day with the market trends and innovations in infant and adult probiotics. She spoke about stability challenges in infant formulas and how the company focuses on selecting not only effective, but highly stable strains. Consumer-wise, 66% of parents in China are enticed to buy products with probiotics for their babies. People’s grasp of the concepts decreases from probiotics to prebiotics, and synbiotics, while postbiotics appear the hardest to understand.

Awareness is on the rise and consumers can now name individual strains, Angela Brady said, and they search properties beyond gut health, for example, psychobiotics.

What is important for consumers in the region is naturalness: they are eager to support what is already there. For the brands, this translates into the importance of bringing sustainability, transparency, and origin to the labels.

Angela summarizes the future of the biotics in 5 key trends:

  • Postbiotics
  • Functional foods and beverages (bridging the gap between food supplements and food)
  • Clinical research
  • Naturalness & sustainability
  • Personalization

Angela’s colleague Regina Karim, senior global Science communication and claims manager at H&H, dived the microbiome in the 1000 first days of life. The microbiome can impact long-term health, from BMI and metabolic outcomes, to atopic march and sensitivity. She described the development path of the company’s leading synbiotic, HMOBiotic®, including the most abundant HMO (2’FL) and the strain of infantis that was the strongest metabolizer of HMOs. The resulting formula was NutraIngredients Awards Asia 2022 winner.

More on consumer trends, Ewa Hudson, Director of Insights at Lumina Intelligence, looked at probiotic e-commerce in the APAC region, now the biggest in sales. “Have we seen the probiotic Big Bang?” she asked. Indeed, since 2017, the number of companies was multiplied by 3.5, the number of health benefits addressed almost doubled, the number of products exploded from about 500 to over 2300 in 2021, and online reviews grew x24, up to 12 million! China generates 66% of these reviews.

In terms of trends and targets, Ewa notices that there are few strains and products for seniors and pushes the industry to do better to cater for this population.

About regulatory frameworks

Now Lumina also tracks postbiotics and expects exponential growth when regulatory frameworks are in place. It is difficult for analysts to identify postbiotics, as they are not often labelled as such.

In opposition to Europe, where only 24% of products bear health claims, and usually not carried by the probiotic, in Asia-Pacific, 84% of products have a pack and/or website health claim. The big 5 focus areas are gut microbiome / diversity, immunity, women’s health, wellbeing, and the first 1000 days. Areas generating high engagement online include fertility, oncology, blood pressure, food poisoning, and metabolic disease, showing the need for better accessibility to drug status for bacteria.

“We better know what we don’t know”, said Ewa, and she continues to trust that “Microbiome Research will be the new frontier of Medicine”.

Why is there such a great engagement from Asian consumers? The answer is that these consumers are tech-savvy, Ewa explained, and more claims are allowed, making it easier for them to find the products they need.

Innovation in the microbiome field

Evan Hayes, Managing Director APAC at Factors Group, brought the audience along an innovation journey going beyond traditional probiotics and prebiotics. For him, the future trends are prebiotics, novel isolates & next-generation probiotics, ageing population, microbiota effects on host physiology (cf. postbiotic effects), and cross-feeding interactions.

He introduced a novel type of biotic: the Scobiotics™: synergistic probiotics with bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and blue-green algae, developed for detoxification via the chelation of heavy metals. To get there, the researchers screened 12 000 bacteria, looking at S-layer protein and the production of Exopolysaccharides (EPS) which grasp the heavy metals and enable better excretion.

Lead research associate at Morinaga Dr. Chyn Boon Wong focused on postbiotics for immunity in healthy ageing. She introduced LAC-Shield, the company’s postbiotic based on heat-killed L. paracasei MCC1849 – an inducer of IL-12 and IgA, involved in the resistance to infection. It has been clinically demonstrated that LAC-Shield taken for 12 weeks, protected against common cold and improved mood. With the increased concern for immunity and healthy ageing, it met great success in Japan and is present in over 1000 products, from over 450 different companies. 

In ageing, the immune system gets weaker and even the response to vaccination decreases by almost 50%. As Dr. Chyn highlighted, LAC-Shield improves influenza vaccine response, especially in people with reduced immunity.

Probiotics, Prebiotics and Microbiome category in APAC

She was followed by a panel discussion on growing the Probiotics, Prebiotics and Microbiome category in APAC, moderated by Tingmin Koe, Editor at NutraIngredients, and starring Dr. Anders Henriksson, Application and Technical Support group leader at IFFDeepapriya Velumani, NPD brand lead in Haleon, a Consumer Healthcare branch from GSK, Celia Yibing Ning, director at Junglebao Nutrition Research Institute, and Dr. Sumanto Haldar, Principal Investigator at A*Star.

“Where is the biggest potential in biotics?” Asked Tingmin Koe.

According to Anders, the answer was “China, Australia, New Zealand, and beyond traditional”– with great opportunities in India with different delivery vehicles.

Is TCM in competition with the microbiome sector?

Celia noted that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) always treated the microbiome – we are discovering it now – and China has a strong understanding of gut comfort. Deepapriya commented that consumer awareness and education increased with the pandemic, helping new categories such as mental and oral health to pick up. 

“Which product formats are the most feasible and well-accepted?” asked the moderator.

It depends on target and life stage – adults gear towards enjoyment, efficacy and convenience, with capsules and tablets first. In Australia and China, we see lots of sticks, oil drops, chocolate, and even beverages with some of the most stable strains, Anders mentioned.

Which applications/disorders become more important?

According to Anders, beyond immunity, it is cognition and mental wellbeing, which are developing faster. Also, in combination with more complex formulations.

Deepapriya added that there is a huge surge of interest for skin microbiome, weight management, and mental wellbeing.

Are consumers aware of the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?

For Deepapriya, consumers understanding is higher in prebiotics than probiotics, and for now, they associate probiotics with good bacteria that kill bad bacteria and are good for gut health. 

How to educate away from the conception that probiotics are the cure to everything?

Starting from food cultures to promote good bacteria in your microbiome, for Deepapriya – and we need a collaboration between industry, regulators, and technocrats.

Are there risks for less than serious companies to piggyback on this industry?

According to Anders, very much – and to differentiate the good products, it’s important to look at the strain, the studies, and the dosage until the end of shelf life. Celia agrees and says Junglebao always educates about specific strains. It is also about educating people to look for clinical efficacy and check the product has the same strain and dosage.

How important is it for a product to be backed by science?

As discussed, consumers very much expect the industry to deliver good science, answered Anders. And it’s the company’s responsibility, confirmed Celia. “We have to be confident of our products’ benefits”.

Are there other important ingredients for gut health?

According to Sumanto, nutrition is very important to deliver prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics – with strong variability from person to person. Some spices are rich in polyphenols and compounds that are good for the microbiome – the foodome interacts with the microbiome to lead health effects, he says.

What are some challenges met in clinical trials?

For Sumanto, part of a leading Singapore CRO, it was easier to conduct clinical studies during Covid times, because people were stuck in Singapore for longer than before. Now it’s more challenging to control their nutrition as they restarted to travel.

For Celia, recruitment is one of the biggest challenges, especially in infants, also related to the declining birth rates. As for Anders, he points that often the focus is on delivering the clinical results quickly, and not enough time is spent on the preclinical phase to select the best strain for this outcome.

What about regulatory challenges?

Deepapriya highlights that the lack of harmonization limits the upscale of sales – and she finds it difficult to position the product when the only allowed claim is general or related to digestive health. Not being able to communicate your studies on your pack or website is the fundamental challenge for this industry.

Some companies communicate heavily on the cfu count. Is it relevant?

Anders: “No, but consumers find the cfu count easier, it requires less time investment to make a choice. Very few consumers will go find the trial”. 

Innovation and NPD: what’s hard about creating new products?

Challenges include dosage form, stability of the strain, sensitivity during storage and manufacture, batch to batch consistency, and questions about clean label. With respect to these technical challenges, postbiotics are easier.

Is communicating benefits to healthcare professionals a lucrative option?

For Deepapriya and Helion, it’s part of the good practices to educate KOLs for each new product, including regarding the mechanism of action.

Postbiotics were a hot topic in the talk from Dr. Briana Kolowicz, Microbiome Program Manager at Cargill, as well. She started from the ISAPP definition of postbiotics, and stressed that each postbiotic is different, depending on the strain, growth conditions and nutrient mix that enables it to make the bioactive compounds, the finishing processes (often heat-killing), and QC validation. For Epicor, the screening started with metabolomics fingerprinting and a SHIME study. Looking at the impacts of different probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics on PCA plots, she said that there is room for every tool. The better the pre-selection, the better the understanding.

Future challenges

Visionary Food Futurist Tony Hunter projected us into a not-so-far-future in which personalization is at the heart of eating experience. Thanks to advances in genomics, the microbiome, sensors, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, the future of food is exponentially driven by technology. “It’s dangerous to think linearly in an exponential world,” said Hunter. “Food is techsponential. How to lead your company in this reality?”

What is in it for consumers? AI will know what you want and what you need before you do. The Weizmann Institute and Tim Spector’s team pave the way in personalization, showing promise in the capacity of personalized nutrition to mitigate, prevent and even cure type 2 diabetes.

Hunter illustrated his own vision, with a short video of a man entering the future restaurant Sushi Singularity in Tokyo. A facial recognition software retrieves the man’s nutritional profile, and soon in the kitchen, a 3D-printed sort of sushi is getting ready with just the right nutrients profile.

I would question how this is good for the consumer of the future: conviviality is important, and eating fresh foods rather than ultra-processed 3D-printed so-called nutrients is almost always the better option. We are just now starting to understand that specific natural fibers and microbes are important, and while we could add in the mix microbes and prebiotics, we probably haven not figured out yet the whole complexity of food beyond macro and micronutrients.

Dr. Saishreyas Sundarajoo, Head of Clinical affairs at Amili, looked at the entanglement of bugs and drugs in our gut. Amili specializes in digestive and hepatic health and disease, using big databases, including data from wearables. With this data, the company aims to move from broad solutions such as fecal microbiota transplantation to precision probiotics and single strains for one person. For example, Amili found a local prebiotic to be 5 times better to grow the beneficial microbes than the others. In 3 points, Saishreyas said:

  • It is important to get individualized precise solutions
  • The technology is available for the identification of the parameters
  • The microbiome is geographically contextual 

Dr. Sunny Wong, Associate Professor in Singapore at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, highlighted microbiome and probiotics clinical opportunities in digestive cancers. With a better understanding of which microbes are protective of, or associated with, specific types of cancer, it is possible to harness people’s microbiome to support their health, reduce side-effects and exercise diagnostic potential before, during and after cancer. If you transplant the microbiome from responders to immunotherapy vs from non-responders to mice, you transfer the trait – confirming the microbiome’s role in the ability to respond appropriately to the treatment. Dietary fiber is also known to increase the rate of therapy responders in melanoma.

Fusobacteria are known carcinogenic across several populations, while Streptococcus salivarius and thermophilusClostridium butyricum and other Clostridia appear negatively associated with cancer. Certain strains like L. lactis even have curative potential.

The researcher believes that probiotics are also quite safe in cancer.

Principal Researcher from Cell Biotech Dr. Sang Hyun Lim aimed to connect the dots for us between the gut-brain axis and the gut-liver axis. He showed unpublished data on the improvement of memory in mice, with probiotics that upregulate BDNF and down-regulate PGE2. In the gut-liver axis, Dr. Sang Hyun Lim showed specific probiotic strains from Duolac ProAP4 able to metabolize alcohol and acetylaldehyde, can also mitigate NAFLD. 

The last talk of the day was from Dr. Dai Chen, Research Fellow from the National University of Singapore, about her project to produce probiotic beer with live bacteria. Why beer? “Because it is the most consumed alcoholic beverage, and probiotics are the best-selling ingredients in health drinks.”

Dr. Dai Chen told about the many challenges met in this development process – inhibition of bacteria by the hops and acidity, sedimentation, browning of the beer, spill effect, scale-up, stability during storage, sensory quality, health benefits… Now the brand Probicient is launched in Singapore with 1 billion cfu/can, and there is even a clinical trial on the go.

The other two days of Growth Asia were dedicated to Protein and Healthy Ageing, but given the sponsor booths and attendance, probiotics and the microbiome was the event’s hottest topic.