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Dr. Miguel Freitas of Danone North America: “Attention to detail ”

Attention to detail — in such precise work as science or engineering, detail can make or break you. Whether you are wearing a lab coat under a ventilated hood, changing the medium of a 5×3 inch 96 well plate with human intestinal cells, or writing a scientific paper reporting your findings, attention to detail was critical in […]

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Attention to detail — in such precise work as science or engineering, detail can make or break you. Whether you are wearing a lab coat under a ventilated hood, changing the medium of a 5×3 inch 96 well plate with human intestinal cells, or writing a scientific paper reporting your findings, attention to detail was critical in achieving my goals.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Miguel Freitas, PhD. He is one of the world’s leading experts on the complex interactions between probiotics, the gut and the microbiota. As vice president of scientific affairs at Danone North America, he has helped this global food and beverage company translate the growing body of evidence on different probiotic strains into a range of consumer products. As a nutrition scientist and microbiologist, he has published several peer-reviewed studies on microbes and human health and is a frequent speaker at scientific and medical conferences.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in a family of doctors and nurses in Portugal, so coming out of high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to pursue: not only science, but a career in biology, genetics and biotechnology. While academic options in the space were still limited in 1990 Portugal, I found the newly established program in Food Engineering at the Oporto College of Biotechnology, which set me up for a life of research.

After receiving my master’s degree in food studies, I was introduced to a wide range of academic institutions and industries dedicated to food microbiology and biotechnology. Once I conducted my thesis on lactic acid bacteria and probiotics, I pursued my PhD at the National Institute of Health in Paris, which I finished in 2001.

The academic rigor of these programs and my innate passion for the world of food, microbiology and probiotics in particular set me on the path at Danone, where I’ve been able to enjoy my work and make a difference every day.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Interactions between probiotics, the gut and the microbiota are extremely complex, and I’ve been at the forefront of this research as one of the first to focus my doctoral thesis on the topic. My work at Danone helped move the perception of probiotics and bacteria in general from microorganisms that needed to be killed into the massive mainstream market.

At Danone, specifically, my research has been a driving force behind new fermented dairy products containing both probiotics and prebiotics. In turn, this has formulated strong relationships with top universities across the globe and helped launch research programs to deepen understanding of gut health worldwide.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Growing probiotic bacteria in the laboratory takes time! It takes several hours of fermentation (4–10 hours) depending on which bacteria, and it needs to be accurately monitored since the pH decreases over time. When I first started working in microbiology, I spent a good amount of time planning fermentation batches to avoid being at the laboratory overnight, which happened several times!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Growing up in a family of doctors and nurses definitely made a huge impact on me. I was aware of the medical world from a very young age, and my interest continued to blossom throughout the years. One of the first peer-reviewed papers showing that commensal bacteria from a healthy microbiome can communicate with the host and impact different cellular functions was published in Science in 1996 by Bry et al. This paper completely changed the perception that the trillions of bacteria we all have in our gut have no purpose and created a need to start exploring this complex microbiome system. Professor Jeff Gordon at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO and Professor Tore Midtvedt at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden were leading that work. That paper heavily impacted my PhD topic. I had the honor to work with both great minds, including spending part of my PhD in Sweden at the Karolinska Institute as part of Professor Midtvedt’s team. Both Professor Gordon and Midtvedt had a great impact on my career.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Research is all about structure, but the disruption comes when we use it to inform industry-leading innovation. In the case of food engineering, the world is looking for ways to innovate to uncover better and simpler ways to take care of your health. This is where my research, and disruption, has come in.

When I arrived in the U.S. in 2004, the American understanding of “good” bacteria was overall limited. Misconceptions regarding “anti-bacterial” and “sterile” had been preferred in the world of food science and even medicine, whereas I had just embarked on a research journey that proved quite the opposite. With Danone’s launch of Activia in 2006, we were able to change the narrative and showcase just how good bacteria can be for gut health.

Even within the medical community, back in 2004, it was hard to convince a gastroenterologist that we have good bacteria in our gut and that it can play a role in health, not only in disease, which is the case for most pathogens. Today, many experts in the gastroenterology medical community are at the forefront of microbiome and probiotics research.

Overall, disruption is about bringing forth change — sometimes good, sometimes less so. In the case of gut health and the study of the microbiome, the more we learn and disrupt, the more health knowledge the public will have. This contributes to helping people lead healthier lives — and who can argue with that?

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Determination — in scientific research one needs to have willpower and tenacity. In my case, and with a topic that was disruptive and contradictory in the late nineties, you need to be determined to prove your hypothesis.

Attention to detail — in such precise work as science or engineering, detail can make or break you. Whether you are wearing a lab coat under a ventilated hood, changing the medium of a 5×3 inch 96 well plate with human intestinal cells, or writing a scientific paper reporting your findings, attention to detail was critical in achieving my goals.

Have a purpose — after I finished my PhD, I had an option to continue an academic career or join Danone and work for one of the biggest health-focused food companies in the world. Spending time doing both applied and basic research during my PhD allowed me to interact with other scientists that were working in different medical fields. I quickly understood that I wanted to have an impact on what regular people eat and make a difference in the type of food we produce and provide. My purpose was to change what people eat through probiotics research and the effect on health, including the microbiome.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

The most exciting aspect of working in a health- and nutrition-focused environment is that the work is never done. There’s always more to discover, and with discovery comes greater innovation and disruption. At Danone, we have some exciting progress in the works, and our current portfolio of products is growing. From Activia to Horizon Organic, Danone is making its mark on the dairy and plant-based world and continually making change for the better.

One of the ways Danone North America is enacting change is by supporting education and innovative research through educational grants on microbiome research. The Danone North America Fellowship Grant helps further the study of yogurt, probiotics and the microbiome.

One piece of research we are currently conducting in partnership with Rutgers is a first-of-its-kind investigation exploring the link between the microbiome and the severity of COVID-19. The 850 study participants, including 10 percent that have already tested positive for COVID-19, could have implications on treatment and prevention through dietary intervention, which I find fascinating!

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I read a lot of scientific papers, and most have had a great impact on my thought process. Most recently, I have been reading about the brain-gut connection and how they are closely related. Experts call the gut our “second brain” and for a very good reason. After the brain, our gut hosts the largest number of neurons in the body. The potential of probiotics benefits in the relationship with our brain and mood is starting to be unveiled as we better understand how the brain impacts gut health, as well as how the health of our gut and the microbiome impacts brain health.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have many, but recently I was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with one quote in particular really resonating with me — The time is always right to do what is right.” I believe it has been my principle throughout my life and career.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have always been passionate about food, both in my career and personal life. I truly believe in the mission of Danone — “Bringing health through food to as many people as possible”, and this would be the movement that I would like people to endorse. What people eat, and the impact it has on health and disease, is part of the problem and the solution for some of the critical issues in our current society, such as an increase in diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

How can our readers follow you online?

To stay up-to-date on probiotics research and what I have in the works at Danone, feel free to follow me on LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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