In the May 2014 issue of Food Solutions Magazine, the authors delve into the topic in detail trying to distinguish whether it is hype or whether it can really help improve your gut health.
“Probiotic” is a term familiar to nearly everyone these days, but what are probiotics and is this just another health fad, or is there really something to probiotics improving our digestive (and overall) health? Understanding the science behind substances like these is essential, especially for those with digestive issues.
The term probiotic has been around since the 1960s when research about “microorganisms that affects other microorganisms” appeared in Science, one of the most reputable of all scientific journals. Nearly three decades later, the research community’s interest in, and understanding of, probiotics grew again. The definition became more specific. Today, a probiotic is considered a living microbe in oral supplement form, which benefits another living organism by improving its intestinal microbial balance. In more common terms, probiotics are referred to as “good bacteria” that aid digestion and promote intestinal, as well as overall, health.
While lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and bifidobacteria are the most common probiotics, certain yeasts and other bacteria are also used as probiotics. Probiotics are available as dietary supplements (including capsules, tablets and powders) and in dairy foods (such as yogurts) with added live active cultures. Probiotics are also found in fermented foods, where they occur naturally. Let’s take a brief look at fermentation to understand how these “good bacteria” end up in fermented foods.
FERMENTED FOODS AND PROBIOTICS
Foods like pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi (a traditional spicy Asian condiment made from cabbage and peppers) are preserved via fermentation. Fermentation, more accurately known as lacto-fermentation, is a simple process to preserve certain foods.It involves salt, vegetables and water. Fermentation is an effective means of preserving some foods because many harmful bacteria on vegetables cannot tolerate large amounts of salt. In the initial stage of fermentation, vegetables are submerged in a brine (salt-water solution) containing enough salt to kill all the harmful bacteria.
The “good bacteria”, those LAB mentioned earlier, survive the salty bath and go on for stage two of the fermenting process. That’s where the LAB convert lactose and other naturally occurring sugars in the food being fermented into lactic acid. This acid is what preserves the food. It is also what lends that tangy flavor to foods like pickles and other fermented items. When fermented vegetables are consumed, so are the “good bacteria”.
HOW PROBIOTICS MAY AFFECT HUMAN HEALTH:
The human digestive tract contains a diverse community of bacteria. In fact, in healthy adults, such microorganisms outnumber human cells ten to one! While we tend to think of germs when terms like “bacteria” and “microorganism” are used, many bacteria are necessary to support proper body function. Probiotics are bacteria similar to those “good” bacteria naturally occurring in the human digestive tract.
That is the starting point for reasoning that suggests probiotics may be necessary for our good health.
Advocates of probiotic consumption for improved health claim probiotics:
• Reduce harmful bacteria in the intestine
• Produce substances that destroy or halt the growth of harmful microorganisms
• Stimulate the body’s immune response
Probiotics are currently used for conditions like:
• Irritable bowel syndrome
• Inflammatory bowel disease (for example ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease)
• Celiac disease
• Preventing tooth decay
• Gingivitis and/or periodontitis (oral infections)
The question is, do probiotics really work, or is the probiotic rage just another piece of media hype gone viral?
Strong scientific evidence to support specific uses of probiotics is lacking, thus the FDA has not approved any health claims for probiotics. However, research is ongoing and studies do suggest probiotics have few side effects, if any. Of course, the long-term safety of probiotic consumption remains unknown.
What is also unknown is how safe probiotics are for people with serious underlying health conditions. Scientists remind us the potential for a negative outcome exists when certain individuals consume probiotic organisms.
As for the probiotics widely studied (like those common forms added as live cultures to foods like yogurt), some show considerable promise; however, early clinical trials (human testing) of probiotics reveal methodological limitations and a lack of definitive evidence to support using specific probiotic strains for health purposes. More studies are under way since there is some preliminary evidence for several beneficial uses of probiotics.
A review of research published in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases concludes probiotics may be useful in conditions such as:
• Acute diarrhea
• Antibiotic-associated diarrhea
• Atopic eczema (a skin condition often seen in children and also associated with Celiac Disease)
• Easing respiratory infections
• Preventing tooth decay
• Reducing nasal pathogens (bacteria in the nose)
• Inflammatory bowel disease
Before you go out and stock up on probiotic supplements and start fermenting your own vegetables, it helps to understand the medical and scientific communities’ concerns about probiotics and our health.
Concerns related to probiotic research and consumption:
• Sound scientific research is still lacking regarding whether or not probiotics are safe for long-term human consumption.
• Research is lacking regarding the efficacy of probiotics in supporting intestinal and overall health in humans.
• Because products like probiotics (in supplement form) are not regulated by the FDA and no standardization exists for supplements of any kind, the quality of probiotic products comes into question.
• Some probiotic products randomly tested by independent laboratories are found to contain fewer live microorganisms than packaging claims.
• Some probiotic products tested contained undisclosed bacterial strains in addition to those noted on product packaging.
• Research studies most often cited (even by medical doctors and online medical communities) promoting probiotics are typically non-human studies, which makes it difficult to really say what would happen in humans, especially long-term.
Unfortunately, as is often the case when a health trend catches on, marketing and consumer interest has outpaced research on the safety and efficacy of probiotics. If you wish to add probiotics to your diet, consider doing so via naturally probiotic foods.