Gut health additives: four possible future scenarios

Antibiotics are dead. Long live gut health additives! This could very well summarize the prognosis by any health or nutrition professional when pressed for a quick answer on the future of gut health additives in the years to come.

Alexander Baidin |
Alexander Baidin |

“Antibiotics are dead. Long live gut health additives!” Indeed, this could very well summarize the prognosis by any health or nutrition professional when pressed for a quick answer on the future of gut health additives in the years to come. And, without giving it a second thought, they could be right, no? After all, antibiotics are being removed from an increasing number of feeds throughout the world, and we can all agree that at least these old compounds will not make a comeback — ever.

So gut health additives must continue taking their place, and what a great selection of additives we have. Even additives with no direct claims on antimicrobial activity try to benefit from this unexpected turn of events that saw long-established and inexpensive antibiotics being replaced by previously unheard of additives, at many times the cost and considerably less efficacy.

The global additives business

In fact, the global additives business is growing at record speed, and it is estimated to exceed USD$20 billion within a few years. Gut health additives certainly make an increasing proportion of this market as other products, such as amino acids and flavors, appear to have reached maturity. Looking at this bigger picture it is no wonder that new additives are introduced each year, and old ones continue to enhance their claims, whereas new companies keep emerging trying to market new and old products to a shrinking clientele that is looking for immediate solutions now more than ever. After all, we still do not know how to replace antibiotics effectively, inexpensively and constantly; in other words, we have considerable room for improvement and growth.

Most experts believe business will continue as usual, but I disagree.

If we were to consider the business of gut health additives for the next decade, we would have to ponder over all possibilities, even the most extreme. It is logical to assume that each scenario has its own proponents, especially when jobs and businesses are affected by the success or failure of all other possible scenarios. This remains a fluid market where all outcomes are possible. Here is what I believe could happen, in no particular order.

1. Nothing will change

Antibiotics will continue to be banned in even more countries, reaching a level where they will be considered virtually withdrawn from the global market. In contrast, the current trend to use the existing gut health additives will continue and even increase. New additives will find it harder to be registered and share a piece of this market. According to most professionals, this is the most likely scenario, at least for the foreseeable future. Based on this assumption, many new players are considering entering the market, and others expanding their portfolio, whereas only a few continue to investigate new additives.

The real danger in such an outcome comes from the consolidation in buyers and suppliers. A shrinking number of buyers (those who feed animals) will look to buy an increasing number of additives from a very small number of suppliers (manufacturers) — hence the “supermarket” effect in which all suppliers will sell all additives up to the point that these additives will become commodities with low margins and standardized specifications. This will definitely benefit the buyers, but it will ensure the same fate to smaller additives suppliers as that enjoyed today by most premix manufacturers: extinction.

2. A super additive will emerge

This is the dream of every researcher and additive supplier. It happened before, and it can certainly happen again. Lamentably, this will also probably mean this new additive will enjoy a narrow window of success before being copied, regulated or replaced by other products. Being first is important, and additive suppliers acknowledge this fact by spending vast sums of money on research. Some will ask what is left to discover, especially after the sprint of research activity in the last 20 years, and perhaps they are right. Others point to the undisputable fact that new additives, even the best ones, will have to face a battle uphill, not only against fierce competition from other additives, but also from an increasingly difficult regulation framework.

Despite all these difficulties, and if I were to make a bold prediction here, I would say any new super additive would no longer be feed-borne; I believe it will be something administered through the water, the next frontier in nutrition and health management.

3. Microbes will produce their own additives

It is surprising how many drugs and additives are produced today by microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeasts. What if these same additives and drugs were to be produced in the gut by specifically designed microorganisms? Does the world of direct-fed microbials (probiotics) hold the key to our future?

This is at least something to discuss with probiotic suppliers. In fact, there are already products that claim antimicrobial action against Salmonella. They are based on yeasts and bacteria. Here the keyword is antimicrobial peptides, also known as “bacterial or yeast biological warfare.” There is still much work to be done, but the beginning is interesting and very promising. Questions remain, and the most important one is whether these antimicrobial peptides are similar to the very same antibiotics being banned. If yes, then I foresee a quick death to this technology, as we will be coming back to the original problem of enhancing bacterial resistance to human antibiotics. I do not believe this will be the case, but it is worth investigating before misinformation causes misregulation.

4. New drugs will emerge

If we were a pharmaceutical company sitting on millions of research dollars and employing the best minds available, we would definitely not want to sit idle watching our antibiotic business being overtaken by gut health additives, especially now that they are still not 100 percent effective replacing our banned antibiotics, right? But what could we do? Should we use our ample resources to find new molecules, new drugs that could be used in animals without causing resistance to human-level antibiotics? And while we do that, would it not pay to launch a massive campaign to inform everyone about how harmless our new products will be and how inexpensive and effective they will be when used properly? 

Most experts believe that business will continue as usual, but I disagree.

A dream, you say? Indeed, it is a dream that cannot be easily transformed into reality, and this is why most antibiotic suppliers are buying into gut health additives, trying to maintain their clientele and recover part of their business — but they will fail as this is not their core expertise. For a core of few visionaries, this is not a dream but rather a challenge. Indeed, some are already working hard to find these “non-antibiotic” drugs. Some preliminary signs indicate that the dream will materialize, but there is still no estimated time of “arrival.” Could this be the long-term solution to gut-health management?

What to do in case of a disaster?

As mentioned, most experts believe that business will continue as usual, but I disagree. I believe we will see a new upheaval in the gut-health business, most likely caused by probiotics or new drugs. In this scenario, most current gut health additives will become obsolete, and the change will be a rapid one.

To guard against such unpleasant scenario, some additive suppliers are looking into what benefits their products have beyond the boundaries of gut health. Others try to create a niche for their class of additives by tying them up with a feed formulation matrix variable — an almost impossible task. Others work hard to make their additives so effective or multitasking that they become indispensable. All of them, however, are aware of the impending danger, and in their minds there is a pressing question: how to make their additive(s) as successful as phytase — something the computer picks up automatically. But even the successful enzyme phytase faces an uncertain future; what if phosphates become cheap again? Impossible, you say? Perhaps, as impossible as antibiotics coming back? We shall soon see.

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