Article Text

Original research
‘Gut health’ and the microbiome in the popular press: a content analysis
  1. Alessandro R Marcon1,
  2. Stuart Turvey2,
  3. Timothy Caulfield3
  1. 1Health Law Institute, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  2. 2Division of Allergy and Immunology, Department of Pediatrics Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia, British Columbia Children's Hospital, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  3. 3Faculty of Law, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Timothy Caulfield; caulfield{at}


Objective Extensive research and important discoveries on the microbiome have led to a growth in media coverage. This study explores how the microbiome has been portrayed in press sources popular among American and Canadian audiences.

Design Content analysis.

Methods Using the FACTIVA Database, we compiled a finalised data set of (N=830) articles from press sources popular among American and Canadian audiences which were published between 1 January 2018 and 11 October 2019 and which contained at least one of the following search terms: ‘microbiome’, ‘microbiota’, ‘gut health’, ‘healthy gut’, ‘unhealthy gut’, ‘gut bacteria’, ‘probiotic’ or ‘probiotics.’ We performed content analysis on the articles to determine how often ideas of the microbiome were presented as beneficial, in which health contexts, and whether actions could be taken to reap stated benefits. We compared this portrayal of benefits with critical portrayals of the microbiome.

Results Almost all of the articles (94%) described health benefits associated with the microbiome with many (79%) describing actions which could be taken to reap stated benefits. Articles most often described health benefits in more broad, general context (34%) and most commonly outlined actions related to food/drug (45%) as well as probiotic (27%) intake. Only some articles (19%) provided microbiome-related critiques or limitations. Some of the articles (22%) were focused on highlighting specific research developments, and in these articles, critiques or limitations were more common.

Conclusions Articles discussing the microbiome published for American and Canadian audiences typically hype the microbiome’s impact and popularise gut health trends while only offering a little in the way of communicating microbiome science. Lifestyle choices including nutrition, taking probiotics, stress management and exercise are often promoted as means of reaping the microbiome-related health benefits. The trend of actionable ‘gut health’ is foregrounded over more evidence-based descriptions of microbiome science.

  • microbiology
  • public health
  • qualitative research

Data availability statement

Data are available in a public, open access repository. The data set is available:

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Data availability statement

Data are available in a public, open access repository. The data set is available:

View Full Text

Supplementary materials

  • Supplementary Data

    This web only file has been produced by the BMJ Publishing Group from an electronic file supplied by the author(s) and has not been edited for content.


  • Contributors ARM and TC designed the study with input from ST. ARM collected the data and performed the analysis. ARM and TC interpreted the data. ARM, TC and ST were involved in drafting and revising the manuscript. All authors approved the final version to be published and agreed to be accountable for all aspects of the work.

  • Funding The authors would like to thank Genome Canada, Genome Alberta, and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research for their generous support of Childhood asthma and the microbiome–precision health for life: The Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) Study (#274CHI).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.