Background: Military nurse turned nutty professor
In 1976, after eight years working as a military nurse, Smith and his wife decided to build a life in the country so they took on a small piece of land and, over 15 years, they turned it into a market garden and farm shop and became the leading sweetcorn growers in the UK.
But it was on the farm’s small beef unit where his interest in bacteria began.
“I had enough of a basic knowledge of health to be concerned about the ingredients going into my livestock’s feed,” he tells NutraIngredients. “I thought ‘I’ve got to find a clean food’ and I copied an idea that has been used for hundreds of years - germinating grain.”
Eventually Smith created a nutritious food containing good bacteria called Multigerm which he began selling on the agricultural market.
“I became the nutty bloke in the market buying sick animals, making them better and putting them back in the market again.”
But Smith says in 2002, British agriculture ‘went broke’ and farmers couldn’t afford to buy his product.
It was this that led him to transfer his interest to human health.
“So I stopped my efforts in agriculture and went to four or five hospitals to try to get interest and funding for studies and when I explained what I was trying to do most of them looked at me like I was mad. But eventually Kings College Hospital brought me in for a meeting with leading gastroenterologist Prof Ingvar Bjarnason – although I didn’t realise at the time that was who I was speaking to.
“He said to me at the end of the meeting ‘either you’re the biggest liar under the sun or there’s something different here I can’t ignore’.”
in 2010, Symprove - four selected bacteria in a liquidated extract of germinated barley - was taken to market.
But it was in 2014 that interest 'exploded' after researchers at the University College London published their study testing a number of leading activated bacteria food supplements and revealed Symprove was the only one to withstand all three phases of
their test – arrival in the gut, survival and the ability to thrive.
Since then the product has been included in 13 more published papers, all with positive results, with one showing a positive effect on the microbiome of participants who are already healthy.
In the hot seat
So what’s happening now?
“Now we’re growing at 50% year-on-year purely through word of mouth and recommendations.
“We have tripled our production capacity to enable us to expand into the US and four more European countries. I’m confident that with the right future investment and strong partnerships Symprove has the potential to be a global leader in the wellness market.
“I’ve been working on this for 33 years so it’s turned from a lifetime’s work to an overnight success!”
What are the biggest challenges in this industry?
“The regulatory legislation – it is saying ‘you can’t say you do that’, so at Symprove, we focus on our impact on the microbiome, which isn’t a specific health claim.
“I’d like to see a change in the definition of probiotics. There’s this inference that probiotics should be measured by the dose of bacteria but it’s now becoming better known that it’s about the right strains, the right teams of bacteria and the ability of those strains to survive the acidic environment of the stomach.
“We’ve seen for ourselves the latest studies that show it’s not about single strains, it’s about bacteria working in teams.
“If you deliver the ideal mix of probiotic and prebiotic bacteria, with prebiotics that feed the bacteria so they can survive the stomach - at a PH of 3 - and get to the intestine alive, they will start to produce lactic acid which is a key building block for the growth of good bacteria in your gut.
“The good bacteria will start to produce short chain fatty acids and this sets off a feeding frenzy and the production of butyrate which is carried around and used by the body.
“Therefore the bacteria we are putting into the body aren’t the end product. We have simply sown the seeds to improve the person’s own biome function. The supplement is simply farming the body’s microbiome to allow it to grow.
“I would argue it is pointless when an activated bacteria supplement is tested to see if it will reach the colon when they are only testing it in environments that reach a PH of 6.
“We did our test at PH3 to re-create the acidic PH of the stomach.
“Also, the tests should measure the lactic acid output from those bacteria because it’s one thing to say the strain is present in the colon and it’s another to say it is active in the colon.”
What do you see as being the big opportunity areas of health for activated bacteria?
“The opportunities are endless. The NHS is currently carrying out five in-vivo studies with Symprove: one for IBS symptoms in IBD patients in remission, two Parkinson’s patients pilot studies, one for Diverticulitis and one for children undergoing radio and chemotherapy in an aim to control mucositis and pain.
“The NHS knows the potential applications are huge and they want to be the ones driving these discoveries.
“At first, the majority of our customers were buying for IBS issues. Now 38% of our sales are from people with no issues with IBS and our fastest growing audience are those who are already healthy.
“The educated well have twigged that they must have a good healthy microbiome if they are to remain well and it’s this group of consumers who have overtaken those with IBS.
“I’ve never taken a long term preventative supplement in my life and I consider myself healthy but now I take Symprove because we’ve realised its ability to benefit even the well biome and to lift it into a more robust and effective entity.”