Synbiotics: the marriage of probiotics and prebiotics

Friendly bacteria have made the leap from supplements to foods — and not just yoghurt, either. Dairy products are natural homes, but an increasing diversity of foods is coming on line — muffins, chocolates, smoothies, cereals and more.

Even so, it remains true that food and beverage formulators face a variety of problems with traditional probiotics: cells don't survive high heat and the pressure of food processing, they die quickly on the shelf, and they cannot survive stomach acids to populate the gut.

Suppliers have responded appropriately with strains that survive both manufacturing processes and gastric acidity to colonise the gastrointestinal tract lining. Health benefits range from treating diarrhoea to retarding tumour growth. Some research suggests probiotics could help extend lifespan by decades. Still, there is more research to be done, and so far marketers are only able to get away with soft 'wellness' claims.

It was only in 2005 that researchers and suppliers began debating which was better, single probiotics strains or combinations. It seems that groups from three to eight individual probiotics strains in a formulation have won sway. To be sure, some manufacturers say certain probiotics strains can be antagonistic to each other. Also, different strains can target different health conditions. The upshot is that manufacturers and marketers need to choose wisely.

In 2008, researchers began seeing greatly enhanced effects when the probiotics were delivered with a prebiotic-fibre feed stock, giving rise to the term 'synbiotics.' Preliminary research has shown, for instance, that GOS might trump FOS as an anti-adhesive fibre to flush out E coli and other pathogens. Still, only a few savvy manufacturers have picked up on these important findings and integrated prebiotics with their products. Prebiotic supplier GTC Nutrition recently aligned with consumer healthcare company Ganenden Biotech, a probiotic manufacturer. The two aim to launch a range of digestive- and immune-health products.

One of the larger R&D issues is that nobody knows for sure which prebiotic fibre best matches up with a particular probiotic strain. There's no question, however, that micro-encapsulation technologies, targeting probiotics strains to specific health conditions, and new findings on synbiotic blends are pushing finished-goods manufacturers to boldly experiment with an increasing diversity of food-based delivery systems — from dairy to baked goods. We may begin to find out in 2009 which ones consumers embrace.

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