People are increasingly more thoughtful about what they put into their bodies. One sign of this is the rising use of probiotics, living organisms (bacteria and yeasts) that thrive in our guts and confer a long list of health benefits. Nearly 4 million Americans use probiotics, and it’s estimated that the worldwide market for these products is close to $40 billion.
“Trillions of microorganisms inhabit our gut,” says Chyn Boon Wong, Ph.D., research associate with Morinaga Milk Industry Co., a leading dairy products company. “And the dynamic balance of these microorganisms directly affects our health throughout our life.” Maintaining that balance is crucial to our health, and probiotics can help us do just that.
The health benefits of probiotics are legion. “Probiotics have been used for prevention and treatment of constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and antibiotic-associated diarrhea,” notes Dr. Wong. “Recent clinical evidence shows they can also help with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), support the immune system and mental health, reduce stress, improve cognitive function, prevent certain metabolic syndromes and obesity, and help to maintain a healthy weight. They can also promote skin health.”
As with anything we consume, one of the most important aspects of any probiotic product is where it originates. Since probiotics are living organisms, there are different species with different effects found in different sources. Some bacterial strains are sourced from animals, for example, while others are what’s known as human-residential bifidobacteria (HRB), meaning they are found naturally in the human gut.
This distinction is important. “The scientific evidence shows that human-residential bifidobacteria species, for example, actually co-evolved with humans,” explains Dr. Wong. “As a result, they retain certain genetic attributes that show they are more adapted to the human gut environment and they have superior health benefits to the host.”
In many ways, HRB behaves and is treated by the body as a friendly presence, and HRB species not only thrive more in the human gut, they convey a host of health benefits. They have been shown to assist in the digestion of a wide range of carbohydrates, helping the body capture vital nutrients that would otherwise be lost. They’re also better at producing folate (a.k.a. vitamin B9), a key element of cell growth and a healthy metabolism. HRB species also help to detoxify our bodies, helping to eliminate harmful substances derived from the food we eat.
This is especially important when probiotics are administered to infants, which is why the products developed by Morinaga Milk are based on HRB strains. Bifidobacteria are present in an infant’s gut shortly after birth and are believed to play a crucial role in protecting infants from pathogens and supporting their general health.
“Our focus has been on the infant-type bifidobacteria,” says Dr. Wong, “Research shows these strains can colonize better in an infant’s gut and also contribute to the development and maturation of the gut microbiome.”
Infant nutrition is another example where human-origin probiotics such as HRB can be a better choice. “Animal-origin probiotics bifidobacteria cannot use certain carbohydrates,” Dr. Wong explains. “A key example is human milk oligosaccharides (HMO). Infant-type bifidobacteria can utilize and grow on HMO, which is the main source of nutrition in an infant’s diet.”
Finding the origin
To tell the origins of the bacteria used in a probiotic product, Dr. Wong suggests inspecting the packaging. “Consumers can see the probiotic species name on the package,” she says. “There are different species of human-residential origin bifidobacteria: Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium breve, or Bifidobacterium infantis, for example. Examples of animal-origin bifidobacteria include Bifidobacterium animalis, subspecies lactis, and also Bifidobacterium animalis, subspecies animalis. So, from the name itself, you can tell their origin.”
The bottom line, says Dr. Wong, is that our gut health is important, and so are the products we choose. “We have to maintain the balance of the gut microbiota,” she says, “and probiotics are the superheroes that can help us.”