Long before kombucha and kimchi were hip, some Iowa factory workers were living and breathing the benefits of fermented foods.
An insurance company in the early 2000s noticed workers inside the Diamond V plant in Cedar Rapids, a maker of animal supplements from fermented ingredients, simply weren't getting sick as often as their spouses or the company's office workers. The insurer and an independent immunologist investigated and confirmed that the factory workers had healthier immune systems.
That discovery is the reason Cargill Inc. today has dipped its toe into the consumer market for nutrition supplements. Among its early customers: Goop, the ethereal lifestyle brand of Gwyneth Paltrow. Last year, Goop began using an ingredient from Diamond V in an immunity-boosting chew called "Perfect Attendance."
"The future is microingredients," Dave MacLennan, Cargill's chief executive, said. "It's about responding to and anticipating the needs of the 21st century, and the decade ahead, which is food that is good for you and has medicinal benefits."
Two years ago, Minnetonka-based Cargill bought Diamond V, attracted by the science behind its animal nutrition products. Diamond V's animal supplements help balance the microbiome — or bacteria in the gut — with the long-term goal of reducing dependence on antibiotics.
The human products, MacLennan said, "kind of came through as a kicker in the Diamond V deal, but it is growing quite dramatically."
The same year it acquired Diamond V, Cargill took a minority stake in Austria-based Delacon, maker of animal feed additives that combine various herbs, spices and plant extracts — including essential oils — to create better health outcomes for the animals.
Consumers, especially those in the Western world, are demanding changes to animal agriculture. As more connections are made between antibiotic-resistant bugs and the use of antibiotics in farm animals raised to become human food, many consumers are buying products that reflect these shifting values.
"Consumers and stakeholders around the world are absolutely connecting the dots that healthy people, healthy animals and a healthy planet are all connected. We recognized we needed a team of people who wake up every day focused on the role Cargill has in that space," said Chuck Warta, head of Cargill's new health technologies division.
Cargill will continue selling its staple animal feed and human food ingredients, but the company's future depends on its ability to help farmers reduce their use of antibiotics.
"Consumer voices around the world are being heard very clearly by the farm and ag community, and they are wanting to respond to that," Warta said. "For our animal customers, at the top of their list is how can they get a healthier animal and how can they produce an antibiotic-free line of product. They are very receptive to these alternatives, and frankly, those that aren't are in trouble."
The giant agribusiness believes so fully in this future that in October, it reorganized its animal nutrition unit, adding the word "health" to its name and creating a new business group within the segment called Cargill Health Technologies focused on digestive health and immunology for farm animals and humans alike.
While every species is different, a health technology developed for an animal could very easily apply to humans — as evidenced by Diamond V's experience, said David Webster, head of Cargill's animal nutrition and health unit.
"We are setting our organization up for the next wave of growth and innovation and consumer trends. With the Diamond V acquisition and Delacon investment, we are really getting into health ingredients," Webster said.
Western consumers are also seeking foods and supplements for their perceived health benefits. One of the long-term trends is toward what are called "functional foods" — those with physiological benefits or that reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic good nutrition. First came superfoods; then, more recently the rise of products aimed at helping the body better fight off sickness by increasing the presence of good bacteria in the stomach. Popular examples include fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt and apple cider vinegar. Fermentation is a process that uses good bacteria, sometimes called probiotics.
Under Cargill's leadership, EpiCor, the human supplement brand developed by Diamond V, quickly found new — and unlikely — customers, like Goop. Country Life, a vitamin and supplement brand sold at natural and organic grocers and cooperatives, built an entire line of gut health-focused supplements around the EpiCor ingredient.
There are probiotics, or good bacteria, and there are prebiotics, which are substances like yeast or fiber fed to increase the good bacteria. And there is the emerging space of postbiotics, which are microbial fermentates that result from the interaction of all the bacteria.
"We are discovering more and more science around being able to solve things like irritable bowel syndrome, or modulating the bugs in the stomach to get better sleep," Webster said. "You can do that with probiotics, prebiotics, postbiotics and phytogenics. We think that's a great spot for Cargill to continually evolve."
Karin Hoelzer, a veterinarian medicine researcher at the Pew Charitable Trusts focused on antibiotic use in animal agriculture, says the burgeoning field of alternatives to antibiotics is full of potential on the preventive side.
"With the growing recognition of the threat of antimicrobial resistance, there certainly has been an increased interest," Hoelzer said. "There is a dire need for antibiotic alternatives, re-emphasized by the increase in antibiotics sales [last year]. We know antibiotic alternatives are very promising to address a number of animal illness and disease."
Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767