Probiotics are actually live microbes that are formulated into various products like foods, drugs, and dietary supplements. Probiotic foods are defined as foods that contain live microbes as ingredients and are in demand because they provide beneficial effects on human health. The category of foods in the market that contain probiotics include fermented milk, cheese, buttermilk, milk powder, and yogurts. There are also several non-dairy products that have probiotic ingredients. like soy-based products, cereals, nutrition barsand some types of juices. Data from ongoing research supports the view that probiotics either as foods or food ingredients provide health benefits which go beyond their nutritive value.
How probiotics function in the body
In order to understand how probiotics can be beneficial to health it is important to know how the body functions to provide nutrients and to fight infections. The human body contains various groups of microbes that perform different functions and the digestive system contains some of the more important microbes. In fact, the human digestive tract contains about 100 trillion microorganisms which provide various functions and create a favourable environment in the digestive tract or gut to improve the immune system and help fight infections.
If there are any deficiencies in the digestive system then these microbes help to bring about balance in the digestive tract. They also decrease the steps needed to change foods from complicated to simple structures. Besides useful microbes, there are some harmful microbes that digest food incorrectly and even add toxins to food during the digestive process.
Research suggests the diseases occur because of the existence of harmful microbes in the digestive system and also when their numbers increase and useful strains of these microbes get depleted. In such cases, when probiotics are consumed, they reduce the harmful strains of microbes because probiotics regenerate good microbes in the digestive system. These useful regenerated microbes replace harmful microbes, so food gets fermented correctly and health improves. However, probiotics need to be ingested in specified amounts as a single strain or as a combination of various cultures, to ensure that the atmosphere in the intestines remains balanced and microorganisms can provide health benefits.
Why probiotic foods are in demand
Probiotics are in demand simply because they are known to provide health benefits. So how do probiotics provide these benefits? Probiotic foods benefit human health by preventing the destruction or killing of useful and helpful microflora. Unhealthy lifestyle and poor eating habits as well as certain other conditions like stress, high fat diets, excessive alcohol usage, excessive meat and sugar in diet, chlorine and fluoride in drinking water, use of antibiotics, exposure to environmental toxins and even genetic disorders can change balance of intestinal microflora. Harmful microbes produce ammonia which changes the pH in the intestines, therefore, taking probiotics is helpful in reducing acidity and getting rid of pathogenic bacteria.
There are several consumers that are using probiotic foods as part of their daily diet simply to ensure that problems caused by these lifestyle issues can be resolved and they regain good health. Probiotics are meant to keep the digestive microflora intact because a healthy intestinal microflora results in better health. Besides this,a balanced digestive microflora is essential for strengthening the immune system, leading to better health outcomes. One of the useful functions of probiotics is to help digest lactose if there is a deficiency in digesting it.
Probiotics and the food industry
There are numerous microbial species that display probiotic properties and various strains of probiotics provide different benefits. If increasing nutrition is the target, then probiotic strains that contain lactic acid bacteria need to be added to food, especially the various strains like Lactococcus and Bifidobacterium. In the food industry, particularly for dairy products, microorganism strains that play an important role as probiotics are Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactococcus lactis.
Probiotic products in the food industry are manufactured based on several factors like
- their effectiveness
- safety evaluation
- compatibility of the products with the microorganism
- viability of microorganisms through food processing, packaging and storage conditions
The food industry uses technological innovations so as to ensure probiotic stability and viability and they also use various mediums, like micro encapsulation, to protect the probiotic bacteria from damage in the external environment. Beverage manufacturers have also introduced a straw delivery system, which contains a dry form of the probiotic bacterium. Where it is available, food manufacturers also use the viable spores of a spore forming probiotics during processing as that is helpful. In India probiotics are regulated through the Food Safety and Standards (Health Supplements, Nutraceuticals, Food for Special Dietary Use, Food for Special Medical Purpose, Functional Food and Novel Food) Regulations, 2016. The FSSAI permits only those probiotic microorganisms to be used which are specified in the regulations and which the Food Authority may specify from time to time and which it approves of, after proper scientific evaluation.
How should consumers choose probiotics?
Consumers must be aware that though probiotics have health benefits they are not a solution that will cure all illnesses. Only those probiotics can prove to be helpful which have been formulated based on scientific evidence. Probiotics are labelled as Colony Forming Units (CFU) and a higher CFU doesn’t mean it will provide better health benefits.However, if prior approval of the Food Authority is taken then a lower viable number may be specified if there are proven studies of health benefits with those lower numbers.According to FSSAI regulations the viable number of organisms in food with added probiotic ingredients shall be ≥108 CFU/g. Probiotics must maintain the same CFU throughout the shelf life of the product as during storage probiotics tend to die and so lose their efficacy and will not provide the benefit they are meant for.
Consumers must be aware that
- Any probiotic label that displays CFU value stating “at the time of manufacture” then this could indicate it has not been tested to guarantee full CFU till the time of the product’s expiry or use by date. In which case, it is possible that very few probiotics will be alive by its expiry and so the product will be ineffective.
- Some probiotic products require special storage conditions, like refrigeration, and if they are not stored properly, they will not be effective.
- Probiotics lose their benefits if heated so any probiotic that requires heating must be avoided as probiotics need to reach the gut alive to provide benefits.