Jonathan A. Finch is a copywriter and blogger based in Leeds, England.
Last year I did something I thought I’d never need to do — I had my gut microbiome mapped in a nationwide trial. Without going into too many details, I’m one of the millions of unfortunate people who have a gut condition. The science isn’t that advanced on the subject at the moment and my gastroenterologist had advised me to have my gut flora and fauna mapped to see what it revealed.
While my bacteria were being quietly interrogated by the men in white coats, with results expected shortly, elsewhere an explosion was happening — passions were igniting over climate awareness. People glued themselves to buildings and started to observe ‘Veganuary’ not just in January but all year round. They were angry that successive governments and some of their fellow citizens weren’t taking things like global warming, plastic waste, lack of equal distribution of food and many others, seriously enough. All we had were warm words and little action.
Now, I know what you’re thinking; what does a microbe in my large intestine have to do with the global climate emergency? And what do cows have to do with it? Allow me to explain.
One of the industries that has been in the environmentalists’ firing line more than most has been agriculture – in particular, beef cattle and the dairy industry. According to the United Nations, cattle are responsible for about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions. Beef and dairy cattle contribute 41% and 20%, respectively, of the sector’s overall greenhouse gas outputs. Other issues threaten the industry, many of which we should be taking very seriously — deforestation to create grazing land; use of antibiotics and hormones; animal welfare issues when milk is sold and not fed to calves; and the whole anti-plastic movement when it comes to packaging products. This is without mentioning the issues in the U.K. over prices paid to farmers for their milk. In short, the sector could use some good news.
As a copywriter who often works with the food and drink industry, I try to keep an eye on marketing matters as well as issues of quality, sustainability and above all, truth. We all know we should eat as naturally as possible and that ‘bio live’ generally means ‘healthy’. But there is a gap in our understanding of why and how we can work with our gut microbiota. The gut is so crucial to our physical and mental health that it has been described as the body’s second brain. Aside from diet and exercise, we’re beginning to understand that some people may have more microbes that are specialists in processing fat than others, affecting dieting success. And some people’s guts will react badly to a medication that another will tolerate perfectly well. It really is the next great unexplored frontier in health and food.
Communicating these nuances is no easy task when the packaging we use to convey our messages is shrinking or disappearing — and it means that marketing innovation is a must, now more than ever. Let’s at least consider taking our words off plastic packaging and onto social media, free recipe fliers or hemp bags. If I can’t tell you about the Lactobacillus Bulgaricus or Streptococcus Thermophilus because the yogurt is sold separately and there isn’t a large pack side to write on, we need a different approach. And that’s as it should be — you can’t adequately convey the complexity and myriad benefits of live cultures on a packet. In the future, I believe we will all have our guts mapped as a standard procedure, just like a check-up, and our medications, foods and supplements will be tailored specifically to them. If you had an app where you could learn about your microbes, tailor your diet to them and join a national debate about it, imagine what that could do to the nation’s overall interest in health and well-being.
It’s like the physicians never tire of saying — you can’t outrun a bad diet. So many of our foods today contain ingredients that actively work against our gut microbes, often confusing them, changing them or generally making their lives difficult. We need the knowledge on this to be shared and the industry to invest in it because it will help to assure their long-term survival. Those of us in the creative industries also need to come up with new ways of communicating and evangelizing these foods.
For the dairy industry, this represents a real and valuable unique selling point — very few foods have added probiotic properties and, provided they are the sort that stay alive until they reach your gut, they can transform your yogurt from an ordinary snack to a superb and scientifically proven wonder food.
The few other types of food which have these benefits are equally as good but are rare and often not on most Western shopper’s lists — you may have heard of kefir, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut for example, but there are others to be aware of. These include Maast — popular in the Middle East where milk pots with cultures are wrapped in blankets to ferment; Dahi — yogurt fermented with cultures and red chili in India, said to aid digestion; and Amasi — unpasteurised milk that South Africans ferment in a gourd.
Eating prebiotic foods, like root vegetables, fruits and berries, is something we should also be doing, as these foods encourage the growth of the microbes already at home in our gut. But we need to be realistic about this — many of these foods are out of reach for millions around the world, and we need all the help we can get to eat better in our hectic daily lives. Probiotics also have the advantage that you can try them in different combinations which, when you’ve had your gut microbes mapped out, could be an important and proactive step for many to take. And companies could also take advantage of that.
It’s clear now that the relationship between customer and product is changing as consumers become more aware of themselves and the world, and the dairy industry is no exception. How can industry best communicate these benefits — and on what sort of packaging? Above all, can we do it before the dairy industry is damaged any further?