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Meet the brands getting in on the business of bacteria
Scientific understanding of the microbiome has increased – and so has the number of products that promise to hack or balance it.
Our bodies are crawling with bacteria. It’s estimated that the average human is home to 38 trillion different bacterial cells, which account for more than half of all cells in the body.
Our belly buttons alone, according to Ara Katz, cofounder of probiotic supplement brand Seed, are home to more than 2,400 microbes.
These light, microscopic beings (if you collected all the body’s bacteria, you’d total a little under half a pound) aren’t something people typically pay attention to in their daily lives – but Seed and a number of other skincare and wellness brands are betting on a culture shift.
To Katz, it simply doesn’t make sense for consumers to not think about it. The bacteria in our bodies determines so much about our health that not caring, she says, “would be like saying, ‘why does someone care about their brain?’”
What is the microbiome?
This bacteria, as well as the other spores, viruses and microorganisms that live inside us, make up the microbiome. And as the scientific understanding of our internal colonies has grown, so has the number of brands building products around it.
In the human microbiome, the majority of microbes are found in the gut. Other hotspots include the mouth, home to 600 species of bacteria, and the skin, where roughly 1.5 trillion bacteria reside.
Brands are now selling products that aim to preserve – or even hack – these delicate ecosystems. An at-home test like Atlas Biomed’s can tell you the bacterial composition of your own gut microbiome, and recommend foods you can eat to improve its diversity, while skincare brands Gallinee and Venn sell “microbiome calming” products containing prebiotics and probiotics that promise not to interfere with the bacterial balance.
Meanwhile, Seed, Rmdy and Mybacs sell bacteria-packed supplements that promise to improve our immune, gut and digestive systems. Their products contain bacteria that has been studied “with a specific mechanism and outcome” in mind, Katz says, explaining that different bacteria will prompt varying responses in the human body, such as triggering the need to defecate.
Do microbiome-friendly products work?
The microbiome is a complex topic, and it’s easy for a brand to claim that its products are “microbiome-friendly.” “A lot of [brands] just say that on their site with absolutely no back-up,” Katz says. “It’s a very loose and honestly unregulated definition.”
Consumers who want to be sure the bacteria they are ingesting is actually going to benefit them should ask three questions. First, what bacterial strains are the brand selling? Then, what dosage are they offering? And, finally, do they link to clinical studies that demonstrate the effect of this strain at this dose?
Some brands – such as Gallinee, which includes basic information on what the microbiome is and cites external studies – may leave consumers with question marks around how effective their products really are.
But other brands are going to great lengths to prove their value to consumers. Rmdy has put its product through third-party testing to back up claims that it reduces bloating and helps with digestion.
Seed, meanwhile, is conducting its own clinical trials to find new applications for its Daily Synbiotic product. In November, it announced a trial to see how IBS sufferers respond to it. This year, it will also run clinical trials investigating the vaginal microbiome, in the hopes of finding solutions for bacterial vaginosis and urinary tract infections.
In October, microbiome-friendly skincare brand Dr. Elsa Jungman became “the first brand in the U.S. to be certified microbiome-friendly”. It has been awarded the certificate by MyMicrobiome, a Liechtenstein-based testing lab.
What’s next for the microbiome?
While the business of bacteria may be just starting to take off among consumers, scientists are already leaps and bounds ahead.
In June 2020, a scientific paper revealed that there are more than 140,000 virus species living in the gut, creating what’s called the “human virome”. Many of these viruses are thought to have a positive effect on our health.
Will consumers one day knowingly infect themselves with viruses? We’ll leave it to the brands to figure out how to package that one.
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