Postbiotics: DOA — dead on arrival — has its benefits

Unlike probiotics, postbiotics can exert a health benefit without being alive. Justin Green, director of scientific affairs at Cargill for the EpiCor brand, talks about the surprising story of how postbiotics came to be.

Todd Runestad, Content Director,

April 8, 2024

6 Min Read

At a Glance

  • What's the difference between a probiotic and postbiotic?
  • For some probiotics, just as many health benefits happened if they were killed.
  • Postbiotics can survive processing — hello, gummies and beverages.

[Editor's note: For a deep dive into all things biotics to help your brand gain an edge within your category and capture a wider audience of consumers, download the free Natural Products Insider digital magazine by clicking here >> "Biotics For Life!"]

Natural Products Insider: The official probiotic definition is “live active bacteria which when consumed in adequate quantities confer a health benefit upon the host.” A prebiotic, usually a fiber, is a food source upon which the probiotic bacteria preferentially consume; i.e., the lunchbox for the bacteria. How would you define a postbiotic? 

Justin Green: An organization called the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics has already made consensus industry definitions for prebiotics and probiotics, and it recently published one for postbiotics — a preparation of inanimate microorganisms that confer a health benefit on the host. And so, unlike probiotics, they’re killed. Essentially, probiotics have to be alive. Postbiotics have to be inanimate, but what’s similar about them is they both have to be involved with microbes that have to be cells or cell fragments of those microbes. And what’s also similar is they have to give a health benefit. Just because you’ve eaten a bunch of live bacteria doesn’t mean you’ve taken a probiotic. Just because you’ve eaten a bunch of dead yeast doesn’t mean you've taken a postbiotic either. One of those specific preparations has to have shown through science to give a health benefit in order to be called those terms. 

Related:Biotics for life! – digital magazine

Natural Products Insider: When I hear “post-,” I think “after” — so is a postbiotic an excretion … a probiotic poop? 

Green: That’s a little bit true. It’s what it is, right? We biochemists talk about how metabolites are just things that something makes while it’s living, and those things can be things that do work for you, things that are excreted like your poop, or important things that get excreted into the environment, or it’s what you’re made of. We’re made of metabolites and so postbiotics, like you said, are “after life.” 

Natural Products Insider: Is that a little bit of a surprise? When postbiotics first came out, people were like, wait, it can’t possibly confer a health benefit because the whole game is, it has to be alive. But postbiotics are not alive, yet they still confer a health benefit. 


Green: Yeah, the overall mode of action of probiotics, which are alive, is they need to get down to where they’re needed, which is the large intestine. They colonize part of the large intestine, kind of move out any bacteria that’s not beneficial, but more importantly the beneficial bacteria do something specific for you and that depends on them being alive. 

Related:Go with the gut: Products for microbiome balance link to overall health – product development guide

So some people did experiments where they would take a particular probiotic and then as a negative control, kill that probiotic and give it to other subjects thinking, OK, only the probiotics can give a health benefit. And that did happen for many probiotics. But for some probiotics, just as many health benefits happened if they were killed — and so a lightbulb went off. Maybe there are some microbes where it’s not necessary for them to colonize the large intestine. What’s important is what they’re made of and how what they’re made of interacts with the gut lining to give those health benefits. 

Natural Products Insider: Because they don’t need to be alive, does that mean postbiotics expand the possibilities for product formats? Like, the thing with probiotics is you have to refrigerate them (and yes, we’re getting away from that with some strains and technologies). But postbiotics, you don’t have to. Now you don’t have to put them in dairy or a short shelf-life product. 

Green: You know it. Postbiotics have to be dead and to kill them you need to essentially do a pasteurization step at the last step of making a postbiotic — so high heat, low water activity, it kills it all. And if it’s going to survive that and then be beneficial, then it’s going to survive a lot more formulations than a probiotic is going to survive. This allows you to put it into gummies, put it into beverages, all sorts of things that are very difficult to put probiotics in and have them remain viable. 

Natural Products Insider: Does that also change the health benefits that you can have, like the classic probiotic is for gut health and immunity? 

Green: No, I don’t think so. We’re harnessing microbes in both cases, and those microbes and the interaction with the gut can go to all sorts of health benefits. And it can happen through both avenues. The gut is really the center of our health. Healthy gut means healthy other things. One of them is the immune system, but there could be cognition. There could be joint health. There can be all sorts of things that are going to be important if you’re getting a healthy gut, and both probiotics and postbiotics can do that. 

It has to be emphasized that there are different postbiotics depending on how they are made and each different postbiotic is going to have different health benefits. And that’s the same with probiotics as well. 

Natural Products Insider: What do supplement companies need to know about postbiotics, like should they mix them with probiotics, too, or are there other ingredients that elegantly complement them? Or are they good to go on their own and let’s just start that education process around this term, “postbiotic”? 

Green: It’s just like any other health ingredient. You can combine them just so you are combining different health benefits. So, for instance, EpiCor postbiotic has science talking about how it helps with immunity. But maybe a consumer wants that and something else. Maybe joint health or something like that and there’s a probiotic that helps with that. Really then it would come down almost more to the marketing. 

Natural Products Insider: What do you think your consumers are looking for? 

Green: We have some marketing data that says that people who like probiotics, 90% of them are willing to look to postbiotics to have that combination and help themselves out. 

About the Author(s)

Todd Runestad

Content Director,, Natural Products Insider

Todd Runestad has been writing on nutrition science news since 1997. He is content director for and Natural Products Insider digital magazines. Other incarnations: supplements editor for, Delicious Living!, and Natural Foods Merchandiser. Former editor-in-chief of Functional Ingredients magazine and still covers raw material innovations and ingredient science.

Connect with me here on LinkedIn.


Todd writes about nutrition science news such as this story on mitochondrial nutrients, innovative ingredients such as this story about 12 trendy new ingredient launches from SupplySide West 2023, and is a judge for the NEXTY awards honoring innovation, integrity and inspiration in natural products including his specialty — dietary supplements. He extensively covered the rise and rise and rise and fall of cannabis hemp CBD. He helps produce in-person events at SupplySide West and SupplySide East trade shows and conferences, including the wildly popular Ingredient Idol game show, as well as Natural Products Expo West and Natural Products Expo East and the NBJ Summit. He was a board member for the Hemp Industries Association.

Education / Past Lives

In previous lives Todd was on the other side of nature from natural products — natural history — as managing editor at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He's sojourned to Burning Man and Mount Everest. He graduated many moons ago from the State University of New York College at Oneonta.


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