Potential of Probiotics

By Dr. Sadhna Sharma

People around the world are now paying closer attention to the nutritional profile of foods, including the composition of their ingredients. This has put additional pressure on regional, national and even international level food and beverage manufacturers, as they have to respond to the renewed market forces by reducing or cutting out fat, salt and sugar, as well as preservatives, additives and colorings. This is resulting in vigorous market research, and the launching of a slew of healthy foods. 

People’s rising consciousness about healthy foods is reflected in the growing popularity of probiotic foods, which are nowadays emerging as an important category of food supplement in India. Probiotic elements in dairy products have become part of our diet. They are present in milk, yogurt and ice cream products. Probiotic products are being launched after extensive research and these are now available at leading outlets & foodservice institutions

What are Probiotics?

Probiotics are live, non-pathogenic micro-organisms that benefit the consumers’ digestive system. People often think that bacteria and other microorganisms are harmful “germs,” but there are ‘friendly bacteria’ that are normally present in our intestines and help in digestion of food, in destroying disease-causing microorganisms, and in producing important vitamins. Many of the microorganisms in probiotic products are the same as or similar to microorganisms that naturally live in our bodies. In simple terms, probiotics are live micro-organisms which, when ingested in adequate amounts as a single strain or as a combination of strains, confer one or more specified health benefits to the consumers. 

Types of Probiotics

Our digestive systems have around four hundred different types of probiotic bacteria, and the best known is Lactobacillus acidophilus.  There are others including Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus thermophilus. Each group comprises different species, and each species has many strains. In today’s health conscious society, probiotics are becoming fashionable as a means of promoting all kinds of digestive improvements. The commonly used organisms in probiotics are:

Lactobacillus: This may be the most common probiotic. It's the one you'll find in yogurt and other fermented foods. Different strains can help with diarrhea and may help people who can't digest lactose, the sugar in milk.

Bifidobacterium: You can find it in some dairy products. It may help ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and some other conditions.

Saccharomyces boulardii: It is yeast and appears to help fight diarrhea and other digestive problems.

Other substances termed “prebiotics” are dietary fibers that favour the growth of beneficial bacteria over harmful ones. The term “synbiotics” refers to products that combine probiotics and prebiotics. Among adults, probiotics or prebiotics are the third most commonly used dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals globally.

How the Work?

According to the currently adopted definition by FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) and WHO (World Health Organization), probiotics are “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” It is hard to believe, but antibiotics apparently kill the good bacteria as well as the bad, which explains why many experience digestive difficulties while taking antibiotics. To restore the balance, or the ratio of good bacteria to bad bacteria in the body, many people who are on antibiotics are prescribed probiotic products that come in a variety of forms.

Probiotics help you in a variety of ways:

  • They break down and digest food.
  • They support overall gut health.
  • They ensure the immune system works well.
  • They also play a role in how one think and feel. 

Probiotics have potential health benefits for conditions such as gastrointestinal infections, genitourinary infections, allergies and certain bowel disorders, all of which afflict a considerable proportion of the global population. Probiotics have been shown to boost immune system against various invaders. Having a healthy bacteria population in our gut protects us f r o m bad bacteria, such as overgrowths of yeast, fungi, and viruses. 

Our gut is sometimes called - second brain - and its balance of bacteria directly affects mental health. Gut bacteria not only improve the production and regulation of hormones, such as insulin and leptin but also have been found to produce neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, which play a key role in our mood. In both animal and human studies, some strains of probiotics have been found to improve psychological conditions. Research also found that probiotics helped with anxiety, depression, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and even memory issues and may help to reduce blood pressure. 

Among other things, probiotics also help send food through the gut by affecting nerves that control gut movement. Researchers are still trying to figure out which of these are best for certain health problems. Some common conditions they help relieve are:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Infectious diarrhea (caused by viruses, bacteria, or parasites)
  • Diarrhea caused by antibiotics

There is also some research that shows they are useful for problems in other parts of your body. For example, some people say they have helped with:

  • Skin conditions, like eczema
  • Urinary and vaginal health
  • Preventing allergies and colds

The Best Sources

In India, probiotics have mostly found their way into curd and ice-creams. Probiotic curds in India are marketed by Amul, Nestle and Mother Dairy. However, a variety of plant-based foods, particularly sour and fermented foods, contain beneficial, probiotic bacteria are also available. Some of the best probiotic foods include:

Sauerkraut: A form of fermented cabbage, sauerkraut is full of probiotics created during the fermentation process. Freshly fermented is best, as it maintains the most nutrient density.

Kimchi: This traditional Korean food is made using fermentation with cabbage and other veggies.

Tempeh: A fermented soybean product that’s high in both protein and probiotics.

Miso: A staple in Japanese cuisine, miso paste is commonly used as a base for soups and as a flavoring in many dishes. While rich in probiotics, it’s also high in sodium so it may be best used in moderation.

Natto: An unusual food with a unique texture and flavor, Natto is made f r o m fermented soybeans and is rich in probiotics.

Kefir: A cultured, probiotic food typically made with cow’s milk and contains both bacteria and yeast working together. To avoid the negative health effects of dairy, you can opt for coconut or water-based versions instead.

Yogurt: To stay plant-based, choose non-dairy varieties, which can also have probiotics. Steer clear of sweetened varieties because sugars can be bad for your digestive health.

Pickled vegetables: While cucumbers might be the most popular option, any kind of pickled veggie can provide probiotics as long as they’re unpasteurized. However, you may want to keep consumption of these relatively low, as they’re also high in sodium.

The Caution

In healthy people, probiotics usually have only minor side effects, if any. However, in people with underlying health problems, serious complications such as infections have occasionally been reported. A research paper published in The Lancet, a renowned British medical journal, says that the “good bacteria” commonly found in probiotic yogurt (commonly known as curd in India) and drinks, can be fatal for people suffering f r o m severe pancreatitis. People have to be careful because probiotics can not only be harmful in cases of pancreatitis but also in liver infections and general infections like gastroenteritis.

Furthermore, according to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), consulting a physician before administering probiotics to infants or to people with compromised immune systems or other major underlying illnesses is of great importance. Also one should go through the ‘Warning’ and ‘Other Information’ on the product package and be aware of any expected symptoms or side effects. 

Moreover, just because a product claims itself to be probiotic, doesn’t mean it is probiotic. Some products labeled probiotic do not have clinically validated strains or levels in the product. The consumers of probiotic products should be aware of those products, and should refrain f r o m using them. 

The probiotic bacteria can confer health benefits only if they are consumed in right quantities. Probiotics are measured in CFU which stands for colony forming units and is a measure of live microbes in that probiotic.  According to the association (ISSAP), CFU amount should be the same as that shown to be effective in clinical studies. More CFUs does not necessarily mean better. Moreover, ISSP advises that it should be borne in mind that different probiotics have been shown to be effective at different levels. It is not possible to provide one count for all types of probiotics. ISSP also states that it is always better, safer and wiser to pick up a probiotic product f r o m a trusted manufacturer. The common sense also dictates that if the addition of probiotics is not done properly, the results could be disastrous. A trusted manufacturer with an impressive track record is more likely to ensure that its probiotic product has the same strain(s) and is as potent through the end of shelf life, as what was used in clinical studies

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the apex body for the formulation, coordination and promotion of biomedical research in India, along with the Department of Biotechnology of the Ministry of Science and Technology, have proposed guidelines for evaluation of probiotics in food in India, which articulates the base for the law to govern probiotics. India’s small but growing probiotics market is dominated by strains f r o m non-Indian companies and there are differences in Indian gut flora.  So the mooted guidelines suggest probiotics should be tested on local populations before they receive safety approval. 

Probiotic food is an emerging category in India and with the number of probiotic foods making a foray into Indian market, it becomes imperative to establish guidelines to regulate them. The guidelines would cover efficiency, safety and health claims and define probiotic parameters. Stringent labelling of the probiotic product, shelf life and storage conditions would prevent companies f r o m misleading the consumer.
Labeling of the probiotic products are indeed, of great importance. Besides telling what probiotic is being offered, the label can also throw light on how many live microorganisms are approximately there in each serving, and when does the product expire. The serving size, the possible health benefits, the proper storage conditions, and corporate contact information can also be elicited through a proper, comprehensive labeling.  

Probiotics has emerged as a commercially viable option for the food processing sector. However, the knowledge, techniques and the use of probiotics is still in its nascent stage. In India, especially in the hospitality sector, the uses of probiotics are expected to grow in the times to come. However, the consumers must be fully aware of the contents and effects of a probiotic product before purchasing it, and any health claims made in relation to a product must be substantiated by clinical trial data. 

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