The concept of microorganisms having a positive influence on one’s health is far from new or novel.
History notes that ancient practitioners turned to live cultures and soured milk teeming with lactic acid bacteria to successfully alleviate the symptoms of gastrointestinal (GI) and other disorders, basing their prescriptions on a rudimentary understanding of the role gut microbiota has on illness and disease prevention.
But today, modern science is swiftly accelerating our understanding of human gut flora, directly connecting it to a growing portfolio of health benefits. At the same time, ingredient companies and product formulators are devising inspired methods of delivery that are increasing uptake and amplifying efficacy, and zeroing in on specific bacterial strains with precise linkage to certain health anomalies.
In short, it’s a phenomenal time in the evolution of probiotics and other biological catalysts for food, beverages and supplements.
The connection is real
Probiotics and related microbial catalyst ingredients are some of the most studied in the food and nutrition space, and the research continues to add up. Science’s understanding of probiotic health benefits is sharpening ever more to their positive influence across the health spectrum.
Much is being learned about specific probiotic strains and their effects on certain conditions, but it’s important to note that their benefits are also more generalized, as explained in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Fact Sheet:
“The nonspecific mechanisms vary widely among strains, species, or even genera of commonly used probiotic supplements. These mechanisms include inhibition of the growth of pathogenic microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract, production of bioactive metabolites (e.g., short-chain fatty acids), and reduction of luminal pH in the colon,” the sheet detailed.
With regard to strain-specifics, it continued, “Strain-specific mechanisms can include vitamin synthesis, gut barrier reinforcement, bile salt metabolism, enzymatic activity, and toxin neutralization.”
“Through all of these mechanisms, probiotics might have wide-ranging impacts on human health and disease,” NIH concluded.
Health benefits related to probiotics have been clinically proven in many areas, including: immune functions,1 usefulness in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS),2 supporting cardiovascular health and wellness,3 supporting healthy blood pressure levels,4 liver functions,5 obesity management6 and as anti-inflammatory agents.7
Other research has shown probiotics’ positive effects on allergic conditions,8 pain relief support,9 and even skin health maintenance10 and dental health.11
Immune health continues to be a focus of probiotics research, and perhaps has taken on greater significance as consumers seek out new ways to boost their immune systems in response to the global pandemic.
Often, studies centering on immunity measure the frequency of the common cold or upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs), and the duration and severity of cold symptoms by participants in the studies. A 2015 Cochrane Review titled “Probiotics for Preventing Acute Upper Respiratory Tract Infections” summarized 13 randomized and controlled trials and is particularly notable here. The review concluded probiotics were significantly better than placebo for reducing the number and duration of URTIs.12
One can infer from the conclusion that probiotics are likely working with the immune system to have a protective effect against pathogens. Authors of the review went further, concluding that some probiotics can produce proteins or acids that inhibit the growth of pathogens in the GI tract, and that they also can interact with the immune cells of the human body to influence their effectiveness. They also touted prevention of infection through improvements in strength of the intestinal barrier.
Ingredient supplier Kerry Health and Nutrition further noted that a study published in a 2005 edition of Clinical Nutrition pointed to strain-specific support related to symptoms of the common cold.13 The study found that consuming Lactobacillus gasseri PA 16/8, Bifidobacterium longum SP 07/3, and B. bifidum MF 20/5 together for at least three months significantly shortened common cold episodes by almost two days and reduced severity of symptoms.
Recent research on Kerry’s patented GanedenBC30 spore-forming probiotic ingredient made the connection between immune and digestive health in kids.14 The study, published in Food Research International in 2019, demonstrated that the ingredient may reduce how often kids show cold symptoms like nasal congestion, itchy nose and hoarseness, and it also had positive effects on digestive health measures like flatulence frequency and stool consistency.
Stability and application
Unlike traditional vegetative probiotics, spore-forming probiotics like GanedenBC30 and others are much more resistant to extreme conditions involving pH, heat, cold and pressure, and that has led formulators to deliver probiotic products in a wave of new food and beverage products that have broad consumer appeal.
“Probiotics with spore-forming ability are far more stable compared to non-spore-forming microorganisms, since the former is resistant to chemical and physiological environments,” said Shaheen Majeed, president worldwide, Sabinsa. He touted the ingredient supplier’s LactoSpore Bacillus coagulans MTCC 5856, which he noted is the market’s only lactic acid-producing bacteria that is spore-forming.
“Stability is one of the crucial parameters and a limiting factor for the usage of probiotics in functional foods, particularly in non-refrigerated foodstuffs,” Majeed said.
When using non-spore-forming probiotics, formulators have turned to microencapsulation, entrapment and aggregation, Majeed explained, but “the survival of bacteria depends on the quantity and strength of the functional groups located in the bacterial cell walls, coating materials and cross-linkers.”
“The fate of new probiotic-based products for the 21st century depends on the correct selection of the bacterial strain, preparation technique and the food vehicle/matrix,” he surmised.
Prebiotic feed combinations
Gut microflora ideally are vibrant bacterial colonies, and as such, can multiply and thrive when conditions are right. Enter prebiotics, nondigestible food ingredients that function as nutrient media for gut microbiota. Gut bacteria consume them, produce metabolites that include short-chain fatty acids, and provide a beneficial effect in the GI tract and on digestive systems when absorbed through the intestinal wall.15
These new formulation combinations have gained market steam in recent years, and earned the term “synbiotics” as a descriptor, owing to their synergism.
“From an ingredient perspective, [consumer] demand is driving research and development of highly effective, versatile ingredients,” suggested Vicky Davies, global marketing director, performance, active and medical nutrition, at FrieslandCampina Ingredients. She referenced the outfit’s synbiotic Biotis GOS, which is the basis for a new gut and digestive health portfolio from the company.
The “GOS” in the brand name refers to prebiotic galactooligosaccharides, which have been shown to increase Bifidobacteria numbers in the gut,16 as well as help alleviate digestive discomfort in subjects with symptoms of IBS and stomach pain.17
“Because [Biotis GOS is] acid- and heat-stable, it can be easily used in a wide range of products, including powders, but also convenience products like ready-to-drinks (RTDs), shots, gummies, snack bars and more, and can be used in conjunction with other ingredients such as proteins,” Davies described.
Ingredient suppliers are also looking at adding prebiotic bacteriophages—viruses capable of infecting bacteria, literally “bacteria eaters”—to probiotics in an effort to provide additional GI tract benefits.
A recently published human trial conducted by Colorado State University scientists and funded by Deerland Probiotics and Enzymes clinically reinforced that idea, and touted the synbiotic benefits of Deerland’s proprietary PreforPro prebiotic blend.18 Study participants who consumed Bifidobacterium animalis BL04 plus PreforPro showed improvements in self-reported GI inflammation systems, a reduction in colonic cramp discomfort, a greater increase in the presence of Lactobacillus versus a placebo, and a reduction in E. coli. In short, the study found that the combination could significantly modulate gut ecology to favor beneficial bacteria.
While the health benefits of probiotics and related bacterial ingredients have traditionally been aimed at an older demographic—whose digestive health can deteriorate quite quickly with age—new synbiotic products are often targeted to younger consumers, as people seek solutions throughout the life span to aid general health and well-being.
In that vein, new prebiotic products are not only being developed for the very old, but for the very young.
One of the most innovative synbiotic pairings happening today is with a prebiotic found naturally in human breast milk. Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are a group of complex carbohydrates that are the third-largest solid component of mother’s breast milk and a proven prebiotic nutritional ingredient for intestinal bacteria developing in a newborn’s intestinal tract.19
The most prevalent HMO has been identified as 2’-Fucoslyllactose, or 2’FL, and it has been commonly formulated in commercial infant formulas in the U.S.
“Studies with infants fed HMO-containing formulas demonstrate benefits for support of growth of a healthy microbial or bacterial flora,”20 noted Belinda Jenks, Ph.D., RDN, of Nutrition Science & Research Consulting. “These findings have supported more widespread availability of both infant and follow-on formulas containing HMOs.”
Jenks is collaborating on a vanguard dietary supplement aimed at toddlers and kids, the daily ready-to-mix (RTM) Growing Up Prebiotics from Begin Health. It combines the GRAS (generally recognized as safe)-status Prebilac 2’FL HMO ingredient from BASF and fructooligosaccharide (FOS) chicory root inulin.
The unique new product builds on clinical research about 2’FLs and infants, according to Jenks.
The inflammatory cytokine profile of infants receiving a formula with 2’FL plus GOS was similar to that seen in breastfed infants, but significantly different from that in infants receiving formula with GOS only.21
Clinical research study data has also shown that infants consuming infant formula with added HMOs had lower rates of respiratory infections compared to a group receiving standard formula without HMOs.22
Those clinically supported benefits in infants are synergistic with toddler and child development, according to Begin Health CEO and founder Madeline Lauf.
Firmly focused on children’s nutrition and the gut microbiome, Lauf said the company’s products “are designed by pediatric nutritionists for toddlers and kids to help feed the living organisms in their little guts.”
“A lot is known about breast milk, and we’re finding new applications of it across the lifespan,” Lauf said.
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