Probiotics are the future– with a hidden past. Despite their being essential to life for all of history, we are only now waking up to their major role in health. Much like vitamins were in the early 1900s when each new discovery flirted with a Nobel Prize, probiotics and their thousand shades of purpose will be unraveled before long.
These are exciting times for all involved in probiotics. Every day a new study or two finds something we didn’t know about the microbiome. Consumers are hungry for anything to keep or get them healthy. Global sales of probiotics in both foods and supplements are exploding.
Still, confusion runs deep. Even as the list of health benefits grows ever longer, the facts on the best and safest ways to use them race to keep up.
Researcher Edward R. Farnworth of the Food Research and Development Centre in Canada addressed a few key questions in The Journal of Nutrition:
How many probiotics do I need?
“There is no consensus as to the minimum number of bacteria that need to be consumed to produce a beneficial effect on human metabolism and health.”
Which probiotics are best?
“… it is often difficult to define what is the active ingredient in a probiotic food…. in some cases, the ingredients responsible for the beneficial effects, such as a product of fermentation or a bacterial metabolite, may not require that the probiotic bacteria be viable when consumed.”
How do probiotics work?
“A variety of mechanisms have been proposed to explain the responses to probiotics, including production of organic acids, production of bacteriocins … and reduction of toxin-producing organisms as well as effects on the mucosal epithelium and the gut-associated lymphoid tissue.”
For which conditions?
”The efficacy of probiotics has been studied for a variety of diseases and metabolic problems including Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, cholesterol metabolism, anticancer properties, and diverticulitis. It must be noted, however, that the degree of success that has been obtained for these conditions/diseases in probiotic feeding trials has not been uniform….”
So even as new probiotic research comes in fast and furious, we still have much to learn. This gap carries over to the consumer.
Awareness is growing quickly:
“Seventy-one percent of surveyed participants in a 2009 International Food Information Council report had heard of probiotics and their associated health benefits, up 17 percent from 2007.” according to an article on foodnutritionscience.com.
But while many are aware of probiotics, fewer know how to find the most accurate information or how to use them.
For example, customers at pharmacies in Australia were given questionnaires on their use of complementary medicine. Probiotics were in the top five used. The biggest source of information for these Australians? Not pharmacists or doctors, but themselves.
And at Rush University in the United States, an online questionnaire was used to assess habits in healthcare providers at a large urban medical center. Most were nurses or physicians: 62% believed that probiotics were beneficial but most did not follow the literature or routinely recommend them to patients.
Minding the gap between science and health is a big job.
Clearly, probiotics are up to the challenge, as they have since life began. They aren’t going away.
Microbiome scientist Martin J. Blaser told New Yorker magazine in 2012:
“We need to be careful with the science and not oversell it. But I have been a practicing physician and medical researcher for more than thirty years, and this is the most exciting and important work of my lifetime.”
As scientists, educators, clinicians, entrepreneurs, manufacturers and consumers, we must embrace the gift of probiotics even as we figure out how best to live with them.
This is where International Probiotics Association jumps in: mining the mountains of new data and research for the essentials on all things probiotic.
Bring it on.