Researchers shed light on probiotics benefits

by Erica Shaffer
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Researchers continue to make discoveries that shed light on the potential connection between probiotics and human health. Meanwhile, more consumers are gaining awareness of probiotics and their impact on health.

Consumer research from The Dannon Co., a business unit of Groupe Danone, Paris, shows the general public is more aware of probiotics, but misperceptions about the microorganisms remain. For example, nearly two-thirds of consumers surveyed are familiar with the term “probiotics,” up from about half in 2009, according to Dannon. But concerns and confusion about probiotics and potential health impacts persist despite the positive news about consumers’ increasing awareness of probiotics.

The Dannon survey found that 22% of respondents believe that all bacteria may make people sick. Roughly one-third of respondents said they feel uncomfortable eating foods that contain bacteria, and 30% of consumers are unaware that different strains of bacteria have different benefits.

Scientific developments regarding probiotics and immunity may help close the gap in consumers’ knowledge of the benefits of probiotics, especially as they face cold and flu season. A review of new research indicates that taking probiotics provides protection against upper respiratory tract infections in children and adults, according to the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health.

The review featured 14 ran-domized controlled trials that included 3,451 participants. More than two-thirds were children, and the average age of adult participants was 40. Elderly adults were not included in the study. The reviewers compared the frequency of colds and other respiratory infections in people who took probiotics to people who took placebos.

“Probiotics intervention was better than placebos in reducing the number of participants experiencing episodes of acute upper respiratory tract infections,” review co-author Qiukui Hao told Health Behavior News Service. “Limit-ed information from 3 of the 14 studies we included in our analysis also showed that probiotics can reduce the prescription of antibiotics.”

Research into the interaction between probiotics and intestinal mucosa show promise as scientists work toward “a la carte” probiotic solutions to digestive health and immunity problems. A recent study published in Nature Review examined how select probiotics interacted in the intestines of test subjects.
“In order to better evaluate a person’s response to probiotics, the authors also stress the importance of considering human individual factors — such as genetics, diet, lifestyle, and resident microbiota for instance,” wrote Peter Bron, a researcher at NIZO food research and an author of the study. “Indeed, different probiotic strains may have unique benefits and be tailored for specific applications to meet individual needs.”

Supplements and dairy products, such as yogurt, are popular formats for probiotics among consumers. But sales of juices with probiotics are growing. NextFoods of Boulder, Colo., offers GoodBelly probiotic juice drinks that include Lactobacillus plantarum299v probiotic strains. Chr. Hansen is promoting its L. casei 431 Juice, a probiotic designed to survive the low pH environment of chilled juice and juice drinks. L. casei 431 Juice contains Lactobacillus paracasei 431.

“This probiotic strain has very strong scientific documentation as well as a long history of use in yogurt and dietary supplement products,” said Marie Brenoee, global marketing manager of probiotic cultures at Chr. Hansen.

Products promoted for digestive health benefits had global sales of $63 billion in 2010, according to Euromonitor. Digestive health product sales in the United States led all countries at $13 billion in 2010, and Euromonitor forecast the U.S. market to grow to $20 billion by 2015. Global sales in the digestive health category were forecast to grow by another $19 billion from 2010 to 2015.

With so much at stake, food manufacturers and formulators may be looking to further authenticate the legitimacy and safety of the probiotic strains used in food products. A partnership between scientists and industry stakeholders at U.S. Pharmacopeia (U.S.P.) is working to provide standards for probiotics.
U.S.P. produces standards for the authenticity, purity, identity and strength of food ingredients, supplement ingredients and for pharmaceutical ingredients, be it active or inactive components. U.S.P. is not involved in validating health claims. Rather, U.S.P. scientists help authenticate the identity and safety of probiotics and give others the means to do the same verification processes in their own laboratories.
Kristie Laurvick, U.S.P. scientist, said there are a lot of genus and species that are used in probiotic applications, and different claims and statements are being made about them. U.S.P.’s goal is to provide users with the type of test protocols needed to determine specific strains so that users may effectively tie what they are putting into a product to whatever claims are being made publicly and in literature about these organisms, she said.

“You really have to be able to show to a very specific level that it is the same organism, and that’s not so easy to do,” Ms. Laurvick said.

Currently, authentication is mostly done through DNA testing. But there’s the issue of the availability of public information about proprietary strains being used, Ms. Laurvick said. U.S.P. scientists and industry partners are trying to open some avenues to make proprietary information public and usable to formulators and consumers.

The U.S.P. also is releasing an appendix to the organization’s Food Chemicals Codex that describes probiotics and other chemical food cultures. It includes information about their safety, uses and the types of organisms as well as how the organisms are identified.

“We intend to add to that more specific methods for enumeration (dosages) and identification,” Ms. Laurvick said. “It does become very difficult, because one cannot prescribe a single enumeration method for a specific type of organism because they all have very specific growing needs based on how they’re created and how they’re fermented.”

U.S.P. stakeholders hope to have most of the work completed in five years. In the meantime, interest in uniform standards continues to grow.

“There is a lot of interest in industry to standardize these things because it doesn’t do them any good to have consumers confused and have regulators confused,” she said. “So we are hoping to roll these out sooner rather than later.”

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