A healthy digestive system is not often talked about until there’s a problem. Every grandmother has their own bush remedy for a backed-up colon, but knowing how to take care of your gut on a day-to-day basis is not exactly common knowledge.
Dominique Himiob, managing director of Amāre Probiotics, which produces water kefir and kombucha products, spoke to Newsday about understanding the benefits of probiotics and how they help people maintain a healthy digestive and immune system.
Amare means "to love" in Latin, a tribute to Costa Rica, where owner of the brand – and Himiob’s cousin – Jonathan Barcant was first introduced to water kefir.
Water kefir is a fruit-infused drink and kombucha is made with tea. Both are fermented with bacteria and yeast cultures and are purported to be beneficial to gut-health.
“The easiest way to explain it is, in your gut there is a balance of good and bad bacteria,” said Himiob. “Depending on how you were born (natural birth or caesarean section) and if you were breast or bottle-fed would determine how the next couple of years will go for your (gut health).”
Himiob has a background in science with a degree in biomedical science from the University of Kent in Canterbury, then microbiology from the University of Surrey in Guildford, both in the United Kingdom.
She said babies who pass through the birth canal are exposed to both good and bad bacteria, but babies born via c-section may not have enough exposure to good bacteria. She said breast-fed babies are also more likely to be exposed to good cultures as opposed to bottle-fed babies.
“Probiotics can drop for babies when they start eating (solid) foods. Introducing them to fruits and vegetables (is important). If they eat a lot of fibre, their gut has a chance to rebuild. As the child gets older, and the more processed foods they eat, it can imbalance the gut again.”
She said Amāre’s products can help people who are lacking in good bacteria which are essential for a healthy digestive and immune system and added that 80 per cent of the immune system lives in the gut.
“How we get sick depends on your gut. If you don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, bad bacteria can overgrow and you get sick more often (or get) inflammatory diseases, bloating, yeast infections. All these things are caused by a low immune system.”
Himiob says the importance of probiotics to gut health is not talked about enough.
“There are old-school remedies to treat problems, but it's not the root of it. Changing your diet can help fix the root.
“People are becoming more aware of the benefits of healthy eating. They are getting a better opportunity than we had.”
Understanding prebiotics and probiotics
Dietician and fitness instructor Omari Joseph explained to Newsday the difference between prebiotics and probiotics and their relevance to a healthy gut.
“Prebiotics are what the microbes in your gut will feed on. Probiotics are the actual microbial culture in fermented foods.”
Microbial culture is a method of multiplying microbial organisms by letting them reproduce in controlled conditions. This is achieved in the fermentation process.
“Fermented fruits will be high in microbes or bacteria that will add to the gut fauna or gut bacteria."
Joseph said everyone’s gut bacteria will vary depending on their diet.
“What you give your body is what it will thrive on. The good bacteria are already there. The prebiotics are the food the bacteria will feed on (such as) peas, beans, veggies and whole grain foods.”
He said many people do not consume the recommended daily fibre intake and will therefore be lacking in the prebiotics needed for the gut to thrive.
He also said children who are not breast-fed still have the opportunity to get the prebiotics they need by eating the right foods.
Amāre’s water kafir products are made with filtered water and dried fruit, and include a range of flavours such as lemon lavender, ginger and turmeric, very berry, and hibiscus.
Its kombucha products are made with brown sugar – necessary for fermentation – green tea and dried fruits. Himiob said fresh fruits aren’t used, as the sugar content will be too high. Flavours include apricot, apple-rose, peach, pomegranate and strawberry.
Himiob started the business in 2015 after coming home from the UK with two degrees but still struggling to find a job in her field.
“My cousin (Barcant) encouraged me to do business to make money on the side, but probiotics continued to be my main interest.”
She herself suffered from irritable bowel syndrome and felt inspired to turn her interest into a business.
“I started out in my mother’s kitchen. I was enjoying selling (the drinks) to people and getting positive feedback.
“I come from a family of businessmen, but I never connected with it until I found something I was passionate about without even realising it.”
After selling in farmers' markets for a while, she was able to get the products into pharmacies and supermarkets, and most recently PriceSmart.
“Initially, people were unsure. It’s a product they have never heard before, so how you get them to buy something they know nothing about? But somehow, we got them to buy.”
She has really enjoyed the journey her business has taken her on.
“It’s been a lot of ups and downs (but now) we’re looking to expand for export. That is the long-term growth plan.”
She took a small commercial loan a few years ago to expand her business, but is hoping for more funding to upscale it.
“The production facility is too small, especially now that PriceSmart is on board. We need to keep up with demand.
“We are in the process of restructuring and organising the business plan to get more funding. We’re getting in touch with InvesTT and ExporTT for business opportunities.”
Himiob said Amāre Probiotics are distributed by Hadco Ltd and have been tested by the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (Cariri) to ensure their safety for public consumption.
“When I first started six years ago, the product is not what it is today. It was not palatable,” she joked. “We were still in the experimental phase in terms of flavours and tastes. As time went on, we refined our product.
“When people hear 'bacteria,' they think, ‘Eww,’ but people are surprised that it tastes good. It’s a refreshing, bubbly beverage. We have gotten feedback from people who say it has significantly improved their acid reflux and chronic constipation.”