A healthy intestinal system does 3 main things:
- Food digestion and absorption
- Protection against toxins and harmful substances (good bacteria and immune cells); and
- Intelligence (nerve cells that receive orders from the brain)
Our gastrointestinal (GI) tract is equipped with an army of good bacteria, known scientifically as microbiota that is involved in all three roles of the intestinal system. With more than 300 square metres surface area, our GI tract is armed with more than 100,000 billion bacterial cells; more than 1,000 different species of bacteria. That is 10 times more than all our cells in the body!
Aside from the good ones, there are also bad bacteria thriving in our gut. Ideally, the good and bad bacteria should be balanced and this delicate equilibrium is easily disrupted by factors such as aging, change of diet, stress, antibiotics and ingestion of contaminated food leading to various intestinal discomforts. Almost all of us cannot escape stress and falling sick therefore, our gut bacteria are usually unbalanced which explains why it is a norm for us to experience intestinal discomforts such as bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea, flatulence, skin allergies and certain intestinal diseases.
Good bacteria or probiotics are defined by WHO as, “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”. The influence of probiotics has started long ago in human history mainly through our diet where bacteria were used in the fermentation of food such as wine, bread and milk. Up till year 2015, research publications of probiotics have reached more than 12,000. These studies prove that taking probiotics regularly help restore gut bacterial balance to relieve gastrointestinal discomforts or intestinal diseases such as gastric ulcers, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and lactose intolerance. The health benefits of probiotics are currently being extended to other health areas such as immune health, women health, emotional health, oral care and skin health.
How do we choose a good probiotic?
To achieve desired health benefits, many factors come into the picture to help determine a good probiotic product. As a consumer, we are always spoilt for choice, so how do we pick out the good ones? Three main criteria determine a good probiotic: stability, viability and safety. Stability of a probiotic is influenced by 4 main factors including strain of bacteria (which species), other functional ingredients, form of presentation and environment.
Different species of bacteria has different stability when administered as a probiotic. The lactobacillus and bacillus group are naturally more stable than the rest which is why we often see them on probiotic labels. While “the more the merrier” is always a good concept, this principle does not necessarily apply in a probiotic. Manufacturing experts in the probiotic industry sums up that a good probiotic preparation should contain between 1 to 4 strains of bacteria to reduce the chances of the bacterial strains antagonizing each other. By applying this rule, chances of the bacteria reaching consumers alive are higher. Other functional ingredients that manufacturers put in together with the live bacteria also matters such as fibres, enzymes, prebiotics and etc. The final probiotic product may not remain stable as probiotics are very sensitive.
The ideal presentation form is either tightly sealed sachets or vegetable capsules with the latter being a more economical choice. Temperature and humidity are two main environmental factors affecting probiotic stability whereby temperature is to be maintained low throughout shipping and storage to ensure survival of the probiotic. It is also important to control humidity (minimal moisture) to ensure the probiotics stay dry until it reaches its targeted place, our gut. Let’s face it, we do not know whether the probiotics we are consuming are alive or dead simply because we can’t see them! Stability studies will tell us exactly how stable is a probiotic because it records the actual amount of live bacteria in a probiotic product when it is kept at suggested storage conditions.
Viability is defined as the ability of the bacterial cells to survive through our system and viability of probiotics is often a pre-requisite for the health benefits. A good and stable probiotic would be able to survive through the harsh, acidic conditions of our gut. Finally, the amount of research especially human clinical research and investigation done for a probiotic directly reflects the safety of the probiotic. The more documentation a probiotic has on humans, the more recognized and safer it is for long term consumption. Thorough research of a microorganism so small is tedious work and it includes characterization of the bacterial strain that spans across identification, genetic studies, physiology and behavior of the bacteria and so on. It also includes deposition of the bacterial strain in internationally recognized culture collections such as National Collection of Microorganisms Cultures (CNCM).
What to look for in a good probiotic product?
In simple words, we all want best value for money products. The next time you are strolling down the probiotic section, these are the few main points to help you choose wisely.
- Stable (considering all factors affecting a probiotic’s stability)
- Viable, provided in adequate doses
- Safe for the consumer
- Must be properly identified and characterized
- The potential mechanism(s) of action of the probiotic strains should be understood
- Health benefits have to be declared
- The product labels should have the following details: strain identity, concentration, expiration date, storage conditions