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Exploring gut health beyond probiotics
The idea of healthy gut bacteria has entered the mainstream, but the range of beneficial foods and ingredients for a healthy gut go far beyond probiotics.
Probiotics help feed the bacteria that make up our microbiome, the trillions of microorganisms that inhabit our bodies and influence our health. Probiotics have come a long way over the past ten years or so, and new technologies have allowed them to move out of the dairy aisle and into a wider range of products, including juices, infant formula, confectionery and baked goods. Interest in probiotics continues to be strong, and the global market is expected to grow 8% a year to reach $50 billion by 2020, according to BCC Research.
But the probiotics in our gut need food too. Despite technological advances, many bacteria in probiotic foods and supplements still are transient, and may not make it all the way through the acidic environment of the digestive tract to the large intestine.
Prebiotics on the other hand, help feed probiotics and ensure they are present in the gut for long enough to be beneficial.
In 2015, DSM launched a platform to present ingredients for gut health such as prebiotic fibres from oat beta-glucan, which help create an environment in which probiotics can thrive, and enzymes targeting specific gastro-intestinal concerns, such as sensitivities to gluten or lactose.
The promise of synbiotics
Prebiotics do not face the same shelf-life issues as probiotics, but one of the biggest hurdles to consumer acceptance is a lack of awareness about how prebiotics affect gut health. Researchers have suggested that prebiotics could be combined with probiotics, not only to improve their effectiveness, but to piggyback on consumer understanding of probiotics.
Studies looking at the effects of such combinations – known as synbiotics – are just emerging, but it looks likely that prebiotics are specific about the probiotics they feed, just as different probiotic strains affect specific gut bacteria. Sabinsa is among those working in synbiotics, and has developed a bilayer tablet designed to keep probiotic and prebiotic ingredients separate until they reach the gut.
Healthy gut lining
Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence suggests a combination of zinc and L-carnosine may improve the mucosal lining of the gastrointestinal tract, helping prevent gastric upset, and researchers are also looking at the amino acid tryptophan for its potential role in relieving symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.
Many different ingredients for improved gut health can be added to foods and drinks, but they can be challenging for product developers. Probiotics and enzymes are sensitive to heat, light and oxygen, and adding too much fibre to a food or drink can give it an unappealing taste and texture.
Emerging evidence suggests the benefits of a healthy gut go far beyond healthy digestion alone, with some suggesting that poor gut health could be a contributing factor to depression, obesity, intestinal diseases and even some cancers. However, pro- and prebiotics do not provide the whole picture when it comes to digestive health, and our understanding of how to influence the gut microbiome is still in its infancy.
Considering that companies like Yakult and Danone were pivotal in bringing awareness of probiotics into the mainstream just a couple of decades ago, the sector looks set for rapid change – and growth – in the coming years.