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One measure of the food industry's growing involvement in probiotics is the staggering $1.4 billion in sales these products enjoyed last year.
So what's driving this flourishing market, which experts project will grow exponentially in the next decade? Health concerns, certainly. With consumers more aware than ever of the dangers of overusing antibiotics and pharmaceuticals, as well as the adverse side effects of such products, now is the perfect time for food companies to educate consumers about probiotics, and perhaps invest in them, too.
Simply put, the role of probiotics is to replenish the intestine with viable, healthful bacteria while enhancing the health of the host. Among other functions, they promote mineral absorption by decreasing the amount of harmful bacteria in the intestine, and by stimulating immunity or producing short-chain fatty acids, which increase colon acidity. However, the benefits of probiotics extend well beyond gastrointestinal concerns.
What are probiotics?
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as "live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host." Their guidelines for use require that the probiotics amount declared relates to those living at the time of use and not at the time of manufacture, and that the viable colony-forming unit count be at the level proven to confer a health benefit in humans or animals. Based on peer-reviewed publications of human studies, the FAO/WHO Expert Consultation lists the following benefits: prevention of diarrhea and a reduction of its duration; prevention of atopic dermatitis; and prevention of urogenital infections. However, studies under way suggest that probiotics may also decrease the risk of certain forms of cancer, reduce Helicobacter pylori stomach infections, enhance mucosal immunity, reduce oxaluria and serum cholesterol, and even reduce irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.
In the U.S., probiotics are sold to consumers as food or as dietary supplements, and to processors as ingredients. While the potential benefits of probiotic cultures seem vast, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have adopted cautious positions with regard to enforcing food regulations. In fact, increased enforcement activity by the FTC against manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements has spilled over to the food sector, especially sectors that rely upon less conventional ingredients such as probiotics. Consequently, there is growing demand from food companies for assistance in complying with the new regulations.
It is imperative that R&D departments not prioritize profits over quality ingredients. Although some inexpensive probiotic strains have been shown to be detrimental in certain patient populations, there is a large quantity of high-quality research on probiotic strains. Karen Weaver of the Chicago-based law firm Weaver & Amin, which specializes in regulatory compliance, cautions that simply because research proves a specific use for probiotics in human health, it doesn't necessarily follow that a marketing department can develop a campaign based upon that research. Certain claims, no matter how true, cannot be used without violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The FDA scrutinizes food claims very narrowly and has made unofficial negative comments regarding the use of probiotic claims on food product labeling.
The number one issue with probiotics is shelf-stability. Microorganisms degrade easily when exposed to oxygen, light, temperature changes, humidity and stomach acidity. Hence, a combination of techniques is required to ensure survival of the bacteria through processing, distribution, storage , virtually all phases until the product arrives at the appropriate site in the body. Further, the outcomes of the selected preservation processes -- which are often complex and mutually exclusive -- must all be authenticated. A mixture of calcium alginate (as the microencapsulating material), Hi-Maize starch (used as a prebiotic to feed the bacteria) and glycerol (the cryo-protectant) may, for instance, enhance survival of bacteria in the capsule but affect survival in acid or bile, illustrating the complexity of the issue.
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