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Survival of the Fittest

By: Lisa Schofield

Keeping beneficial bacteria alive in the GI tract is half the battle.

Scientists continue to investigate the theory that most diseases begin in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the prime area of absorption and utilization of ingested compounds into the bloodstream and through other areas of the body. A well-functioning gut is one that is abundant with the indigenous beneficial bacteria that act as soldiers in the digestive tract, killing off offensive invaders that seek to gain hold, populate, and wreak either slow or fast damage on the body.

Photo courtesy of Chr. Hansen.

Many natural-products consumers take probiotics and prebiotics for a host of issues, reasoning that by recolonizing the friendly flora in the gut, the body is much better equipped to exert proper immune response, leading to increased well-being. For example, according to Danisco USA (New Century, KS), tests have shown that the probiotic L. rhamnosus enhances immune function and can help protect against some intestinal infections.

“The awareness in the industry and public about the usefulness of probiotics in nutrition and gut health has become much more prominent,” says Michael Shahani, director of operations of Nebraska Cultures (Walnut Creek, CA). “Gut health, however, is something people take for granted unless there’s a problem. This needs to be more heavily emphasized.” Indeed. According to the 2003 Gallup Study of Vitamin Use in the United States, a scant 4% of adults were aware of probiotics.

“Awareness of individual digestive diseases is high, but the concept of preventive GI health is new and needs further emphasis,” asserts Caroline Brons of DSM Food Specialties USA Inc. (Eagleville, PA), supplier of Lafti second-generation probiotics. She further explains that there has been a change in the way that the human GI tract and its functioning is perceived, driven by the increased knowledge and awareness of the composition of microflora in the gut. The colon is the most heavily populated region of the GI tract and, due to this highly colonized presence, it is the most metabolically active organ in the body. “This fact,” she states, “is increasingly being recognized by nutritionists and dietitians, who are urging patients to increase their intake of dairy products and use probiotic supplements.”

Unlike many other categories of dietary supplements, probiotics have followed an unusual path. Probiotic science began to develop in the early 1900s, and the formal recognition of the positive effects of specific cultures of bacteria became widespread in the medical and scientific community—in fact, a Nobel prize was awarded to a Russian bacteriologist who developed a theory of longevity based on probiotics. Probiotic research took off in the 1950s, but was overshadowed and largely ignored with the advent of antibiotics. Now, this category has seen a renaissance of interest and clinical data, notably within the past several years.

The probiotics market has developed quantitatively and qualitatively during the past five years, observes Jerome Caussin, probiotics product manager for Institut Rosell-Lallemand (Montreal). “More and more serious targeted probiotic solutions are being offered to consumers. The current market for probiotics is still increasing. For dietary supplements, the estimated growth rate is between 8 and 15%.”

However, in the viewpoint of H. Christian Bejder, probiotics marketing manager for Chr. Hansen Inc. (Milwaukee), this sector of the industry is undergoing a transition. “Many players have looked for a piece of a constantly growing cake, resulting in products of various quality with regard to clinical documentation and stability. But we do believe that very large players will enter this field and elevate the quality of probiotic products.”

Similarly, Tim Gamble, vice president of sales and marketing for Nutraceutix (Redmond, WA), states that the probiotics industry is experiencing a “much-needed increase in attention. With more reputable research being conducted that is not vendor motivated, probiotics will thrive as a respected dietary supplement.”

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

A major issue underlying the viability and ultimate success of probiotics as a sought-after dietary supplement is survival in the gut, leading to entrenchment, colonization, and ultimate efficacy. According to Gamble, there still continues to be confusion regarding the potency and efficacy of probiotics. “It’s all about survival; you may have the best probiotic organisms in the world, but if they don’t survive the three main barriers—manufacturing, shelf, and stomach acids—they may provide no benefits at all.”

Brons agrees, explaining, “Development of specific delivery forms, such as encapsulation techniques and coatings, that protect the probiotic culture when passing throughout the GI tract is one of the significant areas of focus for effective probiotics. Manufacturers are developing and patenting unique technologies to achieve this. DSM is using a specific matrix coating technology. The key is to ensure safe travel throughout the low acidity of the stomach, and at the same time to guarantee bioavailability upon arrival in the GI tract.”

DSM applies a patented, state-of-the-art dual-coating matrix consisting of proteins and polysaccharides, which allows probiotics to travel safely through the acid environment of the stomach and have high bioavailability upon arrival in the GI tract. More specifically, this pH-dependent coating system coagulates at a low pH (making the contents inaccessible by stomach acid). After the probiotic passes through the stomach and arrives in the lower intestine, the higher-pH environment causes the coating to dissolve and Lafti becomes bioavailable, Brons explains.

Caussin says that probiotics are sensitive to gastric acidity, and points out that many probiotics on the market for consumption do not have protection against the harsh stomach environment. Institut Rosell has developed two technologies to increase the survival of probiotics in the stomach. STAR is an enteric-coating process applied to capsules only, while Probiocap is a microencapsulation of freeze-dried bacteria that allows use in a variety of dietary supplements and some food products.

“Bacteria do not live indefinitely,” says Shahani. “And they don’t live well under certain conditions. When it comes to ensuring stability, there are steps suppliers can take to ensure the bacteria live a little better. But every step in manufacturing kills off some of the bacteria. We add natural proteins and herbs that act as antioxidants, which helps preservation, and thus activity.”

Nutraceutix has improved probiotic tablet shelf life through the synergistic combination of its two signature technologies, Bio-tract and LiveBac, Gamble says. The Bio-tract gastric bypass system, created for probiotic tablets, “ensures delivery of significantly great numbers of viable organisms past stomach acids to optimal attachment and colonization sites in the GI tract without the costs, production complexities, and packaging complications of enteric coatings and other methods.” Bio-tract tablets feature the use of Nutraceutix’s LiveBac processing, which ensures extended shelf life for probiotic tablets without the necessity to refrigerate the product. The company claims that studies have shown that LiveBac probiotic tablets manufactured 2.5 years ago and stored at room temperature still provide microorganism viability. Most suppliers still maintain, however, that refrigeration extends the life of the bacteria.

Preventing moisture is also imperative in ensuring viability. “Moisture is a killer to probiotics,” Shahani asserts. Gamble remarks that capsules typically have a moisture content of more than 10%, which allows them to remain pliant. However, this natural moisture content animates the probiotics, rendering dosages much less effective.

Another manner of ensuring vitality of probiotic bacteria is by feeding them their own version of health supplements: prebiotics. Science has found that these microscopic organisms like to eat to survive and do their good deeds.

Probiotics in Yogurt

In addition to supplementation, eating yogurt and other probiotic-containing dairy foods helps the gastrointestinal tract to recolonize its beneficial bacteria residents. Consumers who want to combine their probiotic intake with pills and food need to navigate the continually expanding field of yogurt products.

According to Chr. Hansen Inc. (Milwaukee), yogurt and other dairy foods remain excellent sources of probiotics, and this awareness is growing among consumers worldwide. For example, in Europe and Japan, people are “very aware” of the health benefits of probiotics and duly consume yogurt and other probiotic-containing foods on a daily basis. In the United States, the company asserts, the probiotic dairy market trend is growing.

According to David Burrington, dairy marketing director for Chr. Hansen, dairy foods are the ideal delivery system for probiotic cultures “because milk provides a natural optimal carrier for beneficial organisms. However, probiotic cultures differ in the health benefit, efficacy, and supporting documentation, as well as stability and safety.”

Burrington reports that Chr. Hansen has experienced growing demand for its Nu-trish line of probiotic strains among dairy manufacturers wishing to promote and position their probiotic products. More than 50 published clinical studies have been conducted on the supplier’s BB-12 bifidobacterium, LA-5 L. acidophilus and L. casei 431.

The Nu-trish culture range includes probiotic culture blends that also give desirable texture, flavor, and processing functionalities. Applications include fluid milk, set or stirred yogurt, drinkable yogurt, cheese, and other fermented-milk products. As one example of use, Poland’s largest dairy producer, Mlekpol Grajewo, has incorporated L. casei 431 in its line of Milko buttermilk, yogurt, kefir, and sour cream.

For example, GTC Nutrition’s (Golden, CO) NutraFlora short-chain fructooligosaccharide is a prebiotic fiber that helps reinforce immunity, improve calcium absorption, heighten flavors, and partially replace sugar and fat, says Trina O’Brien, public relations and marketing specialist at GTC.

Prebiotic substances are a necessity for gut-health formulas in today’s market, says John Martin, project leader for Orafti Active Food Ingredients (Malvern, PA). Besides providing fuel for probiotics, inulin, a widely researched, naturally occurring viable prebiotic compound, provides additional health benefits and an increased synergistic and protective effect when used in combination with probiotics.

There is a wide range of health benefits associated with inulin, including aiding with normal gastrointestinal functions, affecting absorption and metabolism of certain macro- and micronutrients, reducing digestive illnesses, boosting immunity, and acting as a prebiotic for bifidobacteria, according to Martin. Numerous studies and clinical research are being conducted worldwide on a range of functional and nutritional advantages of inulin. As one example, recent research has shown Raftilose Synergy 1 inulin to boost calcium absorption by approximately 18%. Research has shown that a combination of both a prebiotic and a probiotic provide improved health benefits over the addition of either alone. And new research, conducted as part of the SYNCAN project and presented at the Orafti Research Conference, has shown that a combination of Raftilose Synergy 1 and probiotic bacteria may provide a protective effect against colorectal cancer.

“Inulin also increases the viability and vitality of the probiotic,” Martin adds. “Research shows that Raftilose products are able to improve the survival of probiotic bacteria in fermented dairy products. In addition, new research shows that inulin also has a protective effect on the vitality of probiotic bacteria in model systems simulating the gastrointestinal tract. Inulin provides protective influences on probiotic bacteria in both the product shelf life and through digestion.”

The past few years have brought improvements in stability and viability of probiotics, leading to opportunities for manufacturing more-effective products. The next challenge is to ensure consumers understand all the benefits to be realized through probiotic supplementation. As Brons describes, “The idea of consuming bacteria is still somewhat ‘adventurous’ and associated with ‘bugs’ and risks by the general public. One of the key elements in communicating the benefits of probiotics is to link up with health professionals such as dietitians and nutritionists, and to jointly reinforce the message that probiotics play an important and central role in digestive and overall health.” This can be used in all central marketing materials to retailers and then through to consumers for a consistent message.

In other words, it is paramount to ensure that the combination of probiotics and prebiotics will wind up in the GI tracts of consumers who take them. In tandem, strong and consistent educational outreach programs will support the sales success of probiotic products.


© Canon Communications LLC 2004