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[Herald Interview] Microbiome key to personalized health supplements

Korean startup’s technology meets Amway’s global product lineup

Amway Vice President Cho Yang-hee (left) and Holzapfel Effective Microbes chief technology officer Wilhelm Holzapfel speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald. (Amway Korea)
Amway Vice President Cho Yang-hee (left) and Holzapfel Effective Microbes chief technology officer Wilhelm Holzapfel speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald. (Amway Korea)

While the human body is composed of some 30 trillion cells, the number of microorganisms, including bacteria, outnumber the cells to about 38 trillion, and they have tremendous effects on our physical health.

Now with advanced technologies, individuals will soon be able to analyze the genetic information of microbials in their guts so they can find personalized health supplements with “optimal” effects, Cho Yang-hee, the vice president of Amway Korea said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

Microbiome, which is the genetic information of all microorganisms and bacteria associated with one’s body, is the key to assessing what supplements would work best with one’s health, Cho said.

That is why Amway Global forged a partnership deal with Holzapfel Effective Microbes, a South Korea-based company researching microbiome, to develop personalized probiotics products for gut health in July 2020.

While everyone is born with different looks, and their races and hair color also vary, human genes are still 99 percent the same. But the microbiome makeup is different by about 80 percent for every individual, according to Wilhelm Holzapfel, an internationally renowned food microbiologist and chief technology officer at HEM who joined the interview.

“Even within one family, individuals have very different microbiomes,” Holzapfel said. “And microbiota (the microorganisms and bacteria) have a very profound impact on our health. It can affect our immune system and even the cognitive functions,” he added.

Cho, who has a doctorate degree in food engineering, explained how each individual’s microbiome could be different. When one uses a red pen to draw on different colored papers, the red could appear more purplish on some papers and more red on others because of the different base coating of the paper, she said. “Microbiome is like the base coating and this information is different for everybody.”

While having good bacteria in the gut is desirable, it is less so when one type dominates. Keeping the balance, or homeostasis, is of utmost importance, Holzapfel said.

That led HEM to come up with a technology, dubbed the “Pharmaceutical Meta-Analytical Screening (PMAS)”, which helps one assess the microbiome of individuals. HEM was established in 2017 by Holzapfel and research professor Ji Yo-sep, who are also both from Handong Global University in Pohang, South Korea.

Under its Ohmygut service, HEM uses PMAS to extract gut microbiota from fecal samples, and replicates them to test what solutions are needed so as to transform intestinal microorganisms into healthy environments.

Partnering with HEM, Amway seeks to expand its line of personalized nutritional products that provides the “optimal” supplement for each individual, Cho said.

According to Holzapfel, his research company has collected data of about 2,000 Koreans, and were able to find recurring microbiome patterns that they say can be grouped into several categories based on their findings.

The South Korean health supplement industry has steadily grown to be valued at around 5 trillion won in 2020. The figure has increased by 6.6 percent from the year earlier, with heightened interest on health and immunity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Personalization will be the key to the industry, domestically and globally, the Amway Korea vice president said.

The trend will also likely gain traction in South Korea, as the government has recently relaxed restrictions allowing companies to repackage existing health supplement products for sale under certain conditions. It was previously not allowed due to safety concerns.

In a two-year, regulatory sandbox program, the government has authorized seven food companies, including Amway Korea, to sell repackaged health supplement products.

Taking advantage of the latest deregulation, Amway Korea rolled out the MyPacks by Nutrilite that provides personalized packets of Nutrilite’s health supplement products. Customers can take a quiz to find products to suit their needs and choose from different blends of vitamins and other nutrients targeted at a range of functions from boosting energy to reducing the effects of hangovers. Nutrilite is the company’s flagship health supplement brand.

In the near future, Amway Korea plans to introduce the microbiome assessment service along with its health supplement products, which will help maximize the effect of the nutritional intakes, the company said.

Cho, who joined the direct-selling company in 2006, described the industry here as being very conservative and relatively slow to change.

“The Korean market is very conservative. Some 10 percent of major local food companies take 90 percent of the market share here, and it has been that way for decades,” Cho said.

“This means there have not been much competition, especially with global companies, and the country is weak and slow on global agendas -- clean label, non-genetically modified organisms, and sustainability, for instance -- that have been on the discussion table for a long time in other markets.”

Amway Korea hopes to help pave the way in bringing such global trends into South Korea, Cho said.

“Virus outbreaks are more frequently seen nowadays. It is important for both the government and food companies to keep educating and inform people of the importance of nutrition.”

By Jo He-rim  (herim@heraldcorp.com)
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