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Home » Food & Agriculture » Why microbes and gut health are a growing focus for the food industry

Professor Paul Ross

Director, APC Microbiome

 The microbiome is a community of organisms that live in — and on — our bodies. Over the last decade, this has become a growing area of research for the food industry.

“We live in a world of microbes,” explains Professor Paul Ross, Director of APC Microbiome. “We are breathing microbes in all the time, we are eating them, and they live on and inside our bodies. They’re everywhere. In fact, everyone has a natural bioreactor within themselves, composed of trillions of organisms, which has a huge capacity to break down the food we eat and influence our health in positive or negative ways. Collectively, these organisms are known as the microbiome.”  

How microbiome research can revolutionise gut health 

The microbiome can either contribute to healthier ageing or exacerbate it, depending on its composition. It has become a growing area of research for the food and pharma industries.

Over the last 20 years, Professor Ross and his multidisciplinary team at APC Microbiome, a world-leading SFI (Science Foundation Ireland) Research Centre based at University College Cork (UCC) — a collaboration between UCC and Teagasc (the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority) — have established themselves as global leaders in gut microbiota research.

 The aims of APC Microbiome are many and varied. For instance, it works with the agriculture, pharmaceutical, biotechnology and diagnostic sectors to investigate how intestinal microbiota influence health and disease — and develop new functional food ingredient solutions and therapies for lifelong debilitating gastrointestinal conditions. 

It also partners with names in the food industry — such as knowledge-based food firms Kerry Foods and The Kraft Heinz Company — to explore commercial opportunities in the sector. 

The microbiome can either contribute to healthier ageing or exacerbate it, depending on its composition.

Using state-of-the-art science to improve food development 

“Collaboration is critical,” says  Professor Ross. “We want to co-develop knowledge around the microbiome using state-of-the-art science to bring safer, or health-benefiting new products into the food chain. Our research ranges from using natural, microbiome-based preservatives — instead of chemicals — to studying how food ingredients affect human microbiota.”

We now know that the food we eat can modulate the composition and function of the microbiome in ways that were previously unimagined — and food companies increasingly understand this. 

“Over the last five years, the number of food companies approaching us has grown,” says Professor Ross. “They recognise that flavour and texture of food isn’t everything. For truly sustainable product lines, food companies know they must focus on products and ingredients with a positive influence on our health — across everything from the gut and immune system to cardiac and mental health. The microbiome, therefore, has become an exciting target for functional food development.”

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