Consumer interest in gut health ballooned in 2020 during the early days of the pandemic, but producers are still learning how to implement immune-boosting ingredients in food. Archer Daniels Midland said its new partnership will help it spur the launch of functional ingredients for food and beverages.
Global ingredients and commodities giant ADM is collaborating with technology company Brightseed to use its Forager artificial intelligence platform to find new ways to develop microbiome ingredients. It will use the tools to examine molecular interactions between the gut microbiome and plants in order to assess their nutritional impact.
Mark Lotsch, ADM’s president of global health and wellness, said in an interview the ongoing, pandemic-driven interest in immune-boosting plant-based food and beverage products has driven its exploration of the category’s potential.
“The gut microbiome has been identified as a treasure,” Lotsch said. “It’s about bringing this leading portfolio together with a product development capability to bring great-tasting, functional texture products that meet demand.”
Despite growing interest in the microbiome, ADM said there are still unknowns about its specific functions and how food interacts with it.
Brightseed believes its AI tools have the capability to identify health outcomes that consumers desire. Its tools can help ADM locate precise bioactive components in plants on a cellular level, the technology company’s co-founder and chief operating officer Sofia Elizondo said in the press release.
“ADM’s advanced understanding of the untapped potential of natural compounds, combined with their vast microbial libraries, is the sum total expertise that will redefine the future of ingredients to promote a healthy microbiome,” Elizondo said.
Why tech could drive health innovation
Consumer demand has made food and beverage formulators eager to capitalize on gut health.
The immune-boosting foods market is projected to reach $46.9 billion by 2030, increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 8.2%, according to Allied Market Research.
In an effort to capitalize on that growth, ADM’s venture capital arm invested in a fund that focuses solely on microbiome health for an undisclosed amount in 2020.
Lotsch said ADM believes that as AI becomes a larger part of food production, producers will more closely examine the nutritional impacts of ingredients because it can predict outcomes in a more precise way.
Postbiotics — substances produced by combining probiotics and prebiotics — could be part of that equation. Lotsch said these ingredients are more heat stable, while probiotics are more common in chilled products. This could open the door to new innovation ideas.
“If you think about probiotics as the factory of what’s happening in your gut, you have prebiotics as the fuel for the factory and postbiotics as the outcome of that,” Lotsch said.
Brightseed has raised nearly $120 million since its launch in 2017 according to Crunchbase. Last October, it launched its first food ingredient, a dietary fiber made from hemp that was first used in a pea-based protein crisp developed by Puris. The startup also has partnered with dairy giant Danone to identify bioactives in plants.
While the plant-based foods category continues to grow, hitting $8 billion in sales in 2022, there is a barrier to entry for some consumers. One-third of consumers said they can’t find a plant-based dairy product they like, a recent survey from Ofi found, with taste, mouthfeel and affordability being three obstacles in the way of adoption. Lotsch said on top of nutritional benefits, taste will be paramount to any ADM-produced gut health ingredient.
“Great taste is not only the flavor, it’s also masking technology that you can bring,” Lotsch said. “We identify mechanical components that help us on the mastering side as well.”
The increased interest in functional foods has resulted in the success of immunity-boosting brands like Health-Ade kombucha and cottage cheese maker Good Culture, which recently expanded into the milk category. CPG giant Nestlé announced a partnership with the University of California, San Diego to understand the impacts of the microbiome on human health in 2019.