Over the past 10 years, the European market for probiotics has evolved rapidly. As consumer interest surrounding food products that are principally marketed on their health-related benefits continues to increase, what is the current knowledge around probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms, found in some food products or supplements, which when eaten in sufficient amounts can be beneficial to our health. They help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria within the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract.1
The most common types of probiotic bacteria are strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, sometimes combined with Streptococcus thermophilus.2 Probiotics are most commonly found in the form of fermented dairy products. They can also be found in supplements such as tablets, capsules or sachets.
Studies on health benefits of probiotics
Despite there being scientific evidence that the consumption of probiotics can be beneficial to your health, this evidence is only relevant to the specific strain that has been tested, and is not a generic claim for all probiotics. Therefore, in recent years, scientific research has focused increasingly on investigating the ability of strain-specific probiotics to protect against or treat certain diseases.
Potential health benefits of some probiotics in humans are2:
- Reduction of the incidence or severity of GI infections
- Improvement of body’s defence
- Improvement of gut functions
Probiotic bacteria may exert their beneficial roles in several ways. Some might produce antimicrobial substances, some compete with pathogenic bacteria for nutrients or for binding sites on the intestinal wall and some modulate the host immune system.3 Whatever the mechanism, for favourable effects to occur and last it is necessary to consume live probiotic bacteria regularly as they are only transient in the intestinal tract and do not become part of the host’s gut microflora.2
In 2001, the European Union (EU)-funded Food, GI-tract Functionality and Human Health Cluster PROEUHEALTH, was set up, with the aim of scientifically examining the role of some probiotic bacteria in our well-being.4 The cluster ran for 4 years, and generated exciting results relating to the health benefits of certain probiotic strains:
Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD)
Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease are disabling diseases, with sufferers experiencing symptoms such as severe diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain. IBD are thought to be caused by the immune system reacting badly to certain bacteria in the GI tract, causing inflammation of the intestine. PROEUHEALTH showed that certain probiotics, in this case, specific strains of Lactococcus and Lactobacillus, might help prevent such inflammation of the intestine and studies are now being carried out in humans suffering from Crohn’s disease to determine if specific strains of Lactococcus could be used to prevent or treat IBD.4
Gastritis and diarrhoea
The bacteria known as Helicobacter pylori can cause gastritis, gastric ulcers and in the worst cases gastric cancer in humans, whilst Escherichia coli and Salmonella typhimurium are important causes of infectious diarrhoea. In the PROEUHEALTH study, specific strains of Lactobacilli decreased the amount of both Helicobacter pylori and Salmonella typhimurium in mice.4 Further studies to test specific Lactobacilli strains in humans are now planned and may provide a new method by which we can prevent and treat gastritis
Health claims – a matter of scientific evidence
In 2007, the EU regulation on nutrition and health claims (1924/2006/EC) came into force.5 One of the key changes introduced by the new regulation was that manufacturers of probiotics must submit any health claims to the European Commission (EC), where the claims are scientifically assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and either accepted or rejected. By 2010, health claims on probiotic products will have been accredited through this process, thus giving the consumer reliable guidance as to the potential health benefits of these products.5
- The British Dietetic Association, Food facts section
- Howlett J (2008) Functional Foods - From Science to Health and Claims. ILSI EUROPE Concise Monograph Series.
- Report of a joint FAO/WHO expert consultation on evaluation of health and nutritional properties of probiotics in food including powder milk with live lactic acid bacteria.
- PROEUHEALTH – the food, GI tract functionality and human health cluster, Consumer platform section
- Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20th December 2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods.