Prebiotics pioneer seeks to create ranking system

by Staff
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BOSTON — The man who helped to create the term prebiotics now wants to rank them by developing a prebiotic index. Studies have shown prebiotic fibers may provide health benefits in such areas as digestion and heart disease.

Many ingredient suppliers offer prebiotic fibers, but the efficacy of each kind may vary widely, said Glenn Gibson, a professor of microbiology at Reading University in Reading, the United Kingdom. He said a prebiotic index could help food and beverage formulators easily access the efficacy level of each kind of prebiotic fiber.

Dr. Gibson and Marcel Roberfroid, now a professor emeritus from the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Brussels, Belgium, coined the term "prebiotics" in a 1995 article in The Journal of Nutrition. Both Dr. Gibson and Dr. Roberfroid spoke Sept. 28 at Harvard Medical School in Boston during a research conference on inulin and oligofructose, two forms of prebiotic fiber, sponsored by Orafti.

"I think we’ve shown there are prebiotics out there that change people’s gut flora," Dr. Gibson said. He added what is needed is "a pecking order of the most efficient forms."

Under the prebiotic index, a prebiotic would receive a positive score whenever it increases beneficial microflora, or probiotics that keep the colon and the intestines healthy, or decreases unhealthy microflora. A prebiotic would receive a negative score for either a decrease in beneficial microflora or an increase in unhealthy microflora.

"We’re kind of not happy with it," Dr. Gibson said of the prebiotic index. "It only looks at the good and the bad bacteria. There’s a lot more to the gut than that."

Researchers have identified Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus as beneficial microflora or probiotics and Clostridium as unhealthy microflora.

"At least we’ve got three or four good markers at the moment," Dr. Gibson said.

He said he hopes to produce a more effective prebiotic index over the next couple of years.

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