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Ideal ingredient calling card: probiotics

Everything you need to know about probiotics, from their history and where they're found to market drivers and physiological effects.

Pro (“for”) biotic (From the Greek For “life”)

What they are

  • Live micro-organisms that benefit the host
  • Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Bacillus coagulans, Probiotic yeast
  • FAO definition: "live micro-organisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health effect on the host"

Where they’re found

  • Fermenting milk and yogurt, kefir, buttermilk or karnemelk
  • Vegetarian sources: Pickled vegetables, tempeh, miso, doenjang, kimchi, sauerkraut, soy sauce
  • Human gut and breast milk

Food or medicine?

  • Introduced in 1907 by Russian Nobel laureate Eli Metchnikoff
  • Health benefits were first documented in 1000 BCE in Ayurvedic treatise by Charaka Samhita
  • Everybody needs them – they’re tied to gut and immune cell functions
  • Not all bugs are the same: strain, condition specific, dose specific
  • Potential to correct gut issues, but biomarkers are still a sticky matter
  • Formulated and marketed as medical foods
  • Currently, no approved health claims for probiotics

Manufacturing constraints

  • Confused by highly proprietary and scientific mumbo jumbo
  • Proliferation of brands – everyone’s naming their bugs
  • Vulnerability to heat and harsh chemicals restricts application in prepared meals manufacture
  • Encapsulants protect but also lower bioavailability
  • Cost major deterrent for food firms

Market drivers

  • The global H1N1 pandemic acted as a major catalyst
  • Consumers believe daily dose is good for you
  • Babies need them so does everyone else including animals
  • Biotherapeutic effects counteract ills of highly processed foods
  • Spells palpable RELIEF for gut-health issues
  • Consumer movies such as Microwarriors and “Germs with a Positive Attitude” popular on YouTube

Physiological effects

  • Probiotics manage good/bad balance of the ~1014 (100,000,000,000,000) bacterial cells in the human body
  • Modulate gastrointestinal health particularly diarrhea, colon cancer and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Protect immune function at all ages; several scientific studies underway
  • Studies show cholesterol reduction and protection against cardiovascular disease
  • Delay or prevent inflammatory deterioration
  • Allergy preventive action and a multitude of benefits may soon translate into clinical effects

Surprising fact
The probiotic paradox: Dead or Alive – probiotics are biological response modifiers and good for you!


Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., is a principal at Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based food science and nutrition firm that specializes in competitive intelligence and expert witness services. Contact her at [email protected] or 312-951-5810.

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