The probiotic promise is beginning to emerge—the friendly bacteria can now be found in a wide array of foods and beverages, from kombucha to breakfast cereal. Plus, in supplements, specific bacterial strains with targeted health support are broadening the scope of their health benefits.
When probiotics first slipped into the mainstream a decade ago, the health advantages were, first and foremost, about digestive health, specifically “regularity.” After that the health benefits ran to immunity because 70 percent of the body’s innate immune function resides in the gut.
While the mapping of the human microbiome continues apace—with tantalizing health benefits that promise to change the way we manage human health—in the meantime research is revealing that the bacteria within us has a great deal to do with, well, everything.
Popular books extolling the gut-brain axis have been overtaken by the “three brains” concept of the brain, heart and gut. Consider: The bacteria within us weigh more than our brains.
Research is honing in on specific probiotic strains. This is an important distinction. The days of merely listing a genus and species on a label—say, Lactobacillus acidophilus—are quickly receding. That’s because one acidophilus is not necessarily the same as another. For example, Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1 has studies showing digestive support by reducing diarrhea, cramping and vomiting among the lactose-intolerant. Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM—same genus and species but a different strain—has studies showing immune support by reducing fever, cough and runny nose. Supplement makers are starting to differentiate and specify their probiotics, with different bacterial strains showing benefit for different health needs.
What’s more, while it’s easy to say that higher CFU counts are better, that’s not necessarily true—it’s more about the quantity of organisms that survive to the lower GI tract where they can thrive. Spore-forming strains can survive better; supplement tech like enteric coating can make strains survive better.
“Studies on certain Bacillus strains—Bacillus indicus HU36 and Bacillus subtilis HU58—have shown a 30 percent favorable shift in the microbiome with only 3 billion CFUs per day,” said Tina Anderson, president of Just Thrive Probiotics. “Thus, the focus should be on the quality of strains and what they do in the gut, not quantity.”
The broadened scope of probiotic strain-specific benefit leaves retailers in somewhat of a quandary. That is, no longer can you just put all of your probiotics in the digestive health section of your store, nor split them between digestive and immunity. Probiotics don’t even necessarily need to be refrigerated. So do you just scatter probiotic supplements throughout your store, or put them in their own section, kind of like hemp oil?
While you consider the merchandising configurations, consider probiotics that are marketed (with research to back claims) for health benefits far afield from the traditional.