Manipulating the activity of the gut microbiota with fermentable carbohydrates to maximise the bioavailability of bioactive phenolic acids for health

Lead Research Organisation: Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC)
Department Name: SUERC


It is now widely recognised that much of the metabolism of the major polyphenol classes occurs in the large intestine, under the control of the resident microbiota. The microbiota degrades parent polyphenolics to a range of intermediates and end-products such as phenolic acids. Evidence is emerging for the health benefits of these intermediates and end-products and given their high bioavailability in comparison to the parent compounds, they may explain in a large part many of the biological effects of polyphenolics.

The main substrates driving metabolic activity of the microbiota in the large intestine are fermentable carbohydrates derived largely from dietary fibre. Our preliminary evidence suggests that there is an interaction between carbohydrate fermentation and polyphenol metabolism in the large intestine. However, a greater understanding of this interaction is necessary in order to predict and manipulate the way polyphenols are metabolised by the gut microbiota.

Manipulating the microbiota with fermentable carbohydrates will mimic the whole-food scenario under normal dietary conditions when polyphenols are released from foods alongside fermentable carbohydrate. The fermentable carbohydrate component will influence the activity of the microbiota and therefore the bioavailability of polyphenolic intermediates and end-products. In addition, the polyphenols may also act with prebiotic and antimicrobial properties, which together with fermentable carbohydrate may promote a more health associated microbiome.

This project will provide new insights into the relationship between fermentable carbohydrates and polyphenols and the role the gut microbiota plays in mediating the health benefits of polyphenol rich foods. Importantly it will also inform Industry about compositions which maximise the bioavailability of phenolic acids and the role these play in mediating the protective effects of polyphenols in health. With increasing pressure, particularly in the beverage market, to reduce sugar intake, replacement of sugar with alternative carbohydrates may be an important avenue to optimising polyphenol intake and polyphenol bioefficacy.

Technical Summary

Our aim is to develop a systematic evidence base describing the impact of fermentable carbohydrates on the metabolism of polyphenols by the gut microbiota. It is now recognised that a substantial part of polyphenol metabolism occurs in the large intestine and fermentable carbohydrates are major dietary factors driving gut microbial metabolism.

This project aims to use a combination of in vitro and in vivo studies to examine the interactions between fermentable carbohydrate and polyphenol metabolism by the gut microbiota. The project aims to determine whether adding fermentable carbohydrate alters the bioavailability and bioefficacy of polyphenols whilst also providing evidence regarding the mechanisms of action for such effects.

Beginning with in vitro model gut screening studies, we will examine the interactions between different fermentable carbohydrate types and polyphenol types. Using this evidence, we will undertake a bioavailability study in human volunteers. Using stable isotope labelling, we will characterise the impact of fermentable carbohydrates on the bioavailability of a parent polyphenol and phenolic acid products of microbial metabolism.

Finally, in a longer term feeding study, we will examine the effects of fermentable carbohydrate and polyphenols on a range or health outcomes to examine the role of fermentation in the health benefits of polyphenols.

Planned Impact

This project has significant potential for long term impact on a wide range of stakeholders from consumers through to policy makers. In addition to the academic beneficiaries listed, the outputs of the research will impact on the following stakeholder groups:-
Food Industry: The outputs from this project will enable the food industry to develop optimised food and beverage preparations that maximise the bioefficacy of ingested polyphenols. Polyphenol rich foods represent a multibillion pound industry, with UK fruit juices sales estimated at up to £2bn, with more than 7000 employees (IBIS World March 20124). However, establishing credible evidence for the health benefits of consuming polyphenol-rich foods is limited by our knowledge of the bioactivity of key metabolites from a range of products. Interactions with food industry will enable exchange of ideas and results to inform decision making in the project and enhance the impact of outcomes. Further research will allow these concepts to be incorporated into a wide range of food and beverages with current levels or perhaps enhanced consumer acceptance. Food with high nutritional impact is a growing sector for the food industry and increasingly requires robust scientific evidence of supporting health benefits. This project and future projects will support health claims and further growth and give the UK food industry a competitive advantage.
Consumers: Individual consumers will have new knowledge regarding the health benefits of polyphenol containing foods and will have information on optimum consumption patterns. For example, if fermentable carbohydrate enhances polyphenol health benefits, then consumer can be advised to consume foods rich in polyphenols with particular fibre containing foods. There is also the potential to present the consumer with new or enhanced products which have the optimum combination of fermentable carbohydrates and polyphenols.
Public Health: There is an increased awareness that optimum nutrition and gut health both have a role to play in maintaining health and preventing disease. We rarely eat a single compound or compound class in isolation in a mixed diet. Thus, an increased understanding about how food components interact to elicit their health effects has long term implications for disease prevention. If we understand how to deliver the right mix of nutrients to the right site in the gut at the right time to maximise the health benefits, a range of options can be presented to the consumer that maximises the health benefits across the population. Food industry has a key role in delivering a range of options to the consumer which requires a strong evidence base with which to guide product development. The data produced will also help inform policy and guideline writers and health professionals.
Staff and students: training in specialist scientific skills, shared access to specialist equipment and opportunities to interact directly with the media (dissemination) and the public, hence gaining further transferable skills. The applicants have strong link with the agri-food industry and knowledge transfer networks, and this will facilitate the interactions of the staff with industrial and governmental stakeholders.
To maximise impact, we will assemble an Advisory Panel composed of various stakeholders including academic beneficiaries and industry. The panel will meet four times during the project to review progress and advise on future directions and potential for exploitation.


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Description A viable system (soup or sauce) to enhance the supply of dietary polyphenols has been developed and studied in vitro and in acute in vivo studies. A longer term study is underway.

Ingredients include lovage, a good source of the flavonoid quercetin, which has received positive comments in the popular press.
Exploitation Route This aspect is being developed as the study is still underway
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Healthcare

Description The wider impact is under development, such as discussing the development of a polyphenol-rich soup with industrial stakeholder. Following a considerable analytical phase, academic publications continue to be drafted for submission in peer-reviewed journals
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Title Ttable isotope tracer studies 
Description Using stable isotope tracers to follow pathways of metabolism of individual polyphenols by microbiota and host 
Type Of Material Physiological assessment or outcome measure 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Provides an alternative to animal experiments as we can study indirectly in humans. This approach of using intrinsic labelling of plant macronutrients has been an important component of adding new insights into mechanisms of action. 
Description BBSRC DRINC 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Regular attendance at DRINC Workshops to discuss research findings with academia and industry
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016
Description Participation in 2018 BBSRC DRINC Bristol event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Networking with BBSRC DRINC community and discussing new opportunities
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018