Beauty Embraces Bacteria

Beauty brands continue to capitalize on a trend: putting prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics into skin-care products. This “wave of new products” that tout -biotics is filling the cosmetic aisle, according to The New York Times.

“It’s like ‘Star Wars’ happening on the surface of skin,” says Dahlia Devkota, founder of the Los Angeles-based skin-care brand Editrix. “‘Good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria both excrete postbiotics, which are their weapons of war. The goal is a balance of both with no one species taking over.”

Devkota adds that she finds skin care products with -biotics are gentler on the skin. Many traditional skin-care brands strip the skin of natural oils, “weaken(ing) the skin barrier.” 

Some brands are experimenting with using fermented ingredients in their skin care products. Venn, another Los Angeles-based skin-care brand, has a scientific advisory board that has spent decades studying the microbiome. Venn’s Synbiotic Defense Mist face spray uses water with probiotic ferments.

“Because fermentation makes the molecules smaller, the product can penetrate the skin surface more deeply,” says Jeff Rosevear, the head of skin-care research and development for new brands at Unilever. The company’s new line, Ferver, has a serum made with fermented collagen.

Read more (The New York Times)

Fermented Foods and Running

Fermented foods continue to top nutritionists’ lists  as a key healthy and functional component in the ideal human diet. In a new article in Runner’s World, a registered dietician recommends runners eat fermented foods to meet nutrition needs, improve their health and better support their training.

The author lists four reasons to eat fermented foods: improve the gut microbiome, add a nutritional upgrade, aid digestion and improve protein intake.

“Recent research even suggests that the makeup of our microbiome may also play a role in how our muscles adapt and develop in response to exercise. And fertilizing your gut with more desirable bacteria via fermented foods may payoff with better digestive functioning during periods of hard training and throughout long races (read: fewer sprints to the nearest port-a-potty),” the article reads. “To date, the literature suggests that probiotic foods (like fermented foods) are still the preferred method of obtaining probiotics rather than relying on supplements.”

Read more (Runner’s World)

For decades, microbiologists and dietitians have advocated including fermented foods in a nutritious diet. Now, new research is helping scientists understand  how much fermented food should be consumed daily. This study is the first large-scale estimate of live microorganisms in the average U.S. diet.

“Ultimately, we want to understand if there should be a recommended daily intake of these microbes to keep us healthy, either through the foods or from probiotic supplements,” said Maria Marco, a professor in the food science and technology department at UC Davis (and a TFA Advisory Board member). “In order to do that, we need to first quantify the number of live microorganisms we consume today in our diets.”

The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, was co-authored by ten scientists regarded as experts in the field of fermented foods and probiotics. They examined the number of live microbes in more than 9,000 foods eaten by 75,000 adults and children. 

From a UC Davis press release on the study: Around 20% of children and 26% of adults consumed foods with high levels of live microorganisms in their diet. Both children and adults increased their consumption of these foods over the 18-year study period.

“This trend is going in the right direction. Exposure to friendly microorganisms in our foods can be good for promoting a healthy immune system.” said Marco.

Foods for gut health

Study authors examined the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to create their estimate. This resource contains extensive information on the foods consumed daily by Americans. Food science and fermentation experts assigned each food an estimated range – high, medium, or low – of live microbes per gram.. Foods in the high category included yogurt, fermented pickles and kimchi. Fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables were represented in the medium category.

The analysis was funded by a grant from the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP.) ISAAP notes that the microorganisms quantified in this study are not necessarily probiotics.

“By definition, a probiotic must be well-defined and have a demonstrated health benefit at a quantified dose. Live microbes associated with food as a category, however, do not generally meet the criteria of a probiotic,” said corresponding author Mary Ellen Sanders, executive science officer for the ISAPP.

The publication is part of a larger global effort to determine how live dietary microbes might contribute to health.

“There is no doubt that the microbes we eat affect our health. When we think of microbes in our food, we often think of either foodborne pathogens that cause disease or probiotics that provide a documented health benefit,” said co-author Colin Hill, a professor of microbial food safety with University College Cork, Ireland. “But it’s important to also explore dietary microbes that we consume in fermented and uncooked foods. It is very timely to estimate the daily intake of microbes by individuals in modern society as a first step towards a scientific evaluation of the importance of dietary microbes in human health and well-being.”

Other scientists co-authoring the paper were ISAPP board members Robert Hutkins (TFA Advisory Board Member), Dan Merenstein, Daniel J. Tancredi, Christopher J. Cifelli, Jaime Gahche, Joanne L. Slavin and Victor L. Fulgoni III.

Consumers want foods that aid gut health, but brands face a major challenge. How can they educate buyers about microbiome health benefits without getting into trouble with regulators?

“It’s no longer enough to just say ‘healthy,’” says Alon Chen, CEO and co-founder of Tastewise, an “AI platform for food brands.” “We are absolutely more critical of health claims in general. We want to know how, we want to know why and we want it backed by science.”

The term “healthy” is no longer resonating with consumers. Over 30% are looking for products with multifunctional benefits, according to research by Tastewise. They want more detail, on topics such as gut health, sleep improvement, brain function, anti-bloating and energy. 

“Food is no longer just about nutrition, nor is it about general health,” says Flora Southey, editor at Food Navigator. “Consumers want more from the food they consume – and they want to be specific about it.”

What are the challenges and opportunities for brands trying to deliver gut health? A panel of food and nutrition experts tackled the issue during a Food Navigator webinar: “From Fermentation to Fortification: How is Industry Supporting Gut Health and Immunity?” Here are highlights.

Regulation Woes

There are trillions of microbes in our gut, but science has only scratched the surface of their power. Gut health is an ambiguous – and often confusing – subject for consumers. 

Regulations on gut health claims are evolving. A year ago, the European Food Standard Authority asked food producers to help evaluate microbiome-based product claims.

“In order for us to assert ourselves in the industry, we have to be able to defend and support these claims,” says Anthony Finbow, CEO of Eagle Genomics, a software company incorporating microbiome research into their data analysis.

It’s “the dawn of a new age,” according to Finbow. Major food companies are now valued for delivering nutrition in addition to caloric content. “There is greater consumer understanding that food is a mechanism for better health.”

Southey feels brands need to do more for consumer education “I’m not convinced [the message is] getting to the consumer as well as it should be.”

Nutrition drink brand MOJU is attempting to tackle the regulatory stumbling block of health benefits on a label. Strict rules requiring detailed substantiation have resulted in few gut health claims“We’ve got a long way to go from an education point of view,” says Ross Austen, research and nutrition lead at MOJU. 

MOJU can’t use the term “gut health,” but they can say a drink contains vitamin C or D, which have been proven to boost the immune system. They can’t say their drink is anti-inflammatory, but they can say it contains turmeric, known for its anti-inflammatory properties.

Marketing -Biotics

More consumers want the presumed gut health benefits of probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics to power their microbiome. Probiotics “have largely stolen the headlines over the past few years,” Austen says, but prebiotics are appearing in more and more products. MOJU puts prebiotic fiber in their drinks because probiotics are a challenge for packaged food products. Because probiotics contain live and active cultures, they must be refrigerated and their efficacy tested.

Ashok Dubey, Phd, senior scientist and lead for nutrition sciences at TATA Chemicals (a supplier of chemical ingredients to food and drink producers), agrees. Dubey feels that the benefits of probiotics have been diminished in the minds of consumers. He notes that when probiotics first began appearing in foods 20 years ago, they were claimed to be able to solve any and all health ailments. 

“There’s a greater understanding that our gut microbiota is so complex, if the food we eat is so complex, then the solution we should provide should be a combination of all of this,” he says. Dubey is seeing more patents combining probiotics and prebiotics, a complex solution that he says looks at whole health.

But, he notes, any claim with -biotics must be validated by scientific research.

Traditional Foods vs. Clinical Trials

Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), takes issue with the need to validate every health claim with scientific research. “We shouldn’t displace a huge body of traditional knowledge in favor of pharmaceuticals,” she says.

Making health claims around -biotics has been challenging for the kombucha industry. “It doesn’t honor what food does for us nutritionally,” she adds. Today’s food industry is so heavily regulated that foods traditionally consumed by humans for centuries – like kombucha – can’t put a health claim on a label without proving benefits in a human clincal trial.

“It’s frustrating,” Crum says. ““In fact, because there is no definition of the word probiotic from a legal perspective, it leaves our brands vulnerable to be attacked by parasitic lawyers who just want to extract value from large corporations because they can.”

“In my opinion, we need to honor the fact that all traditionally fermented foods are probiotic by nature instead of saying ‘Well you need the research to prove it,’” she says.

More and more food and beverages are labeling their product with -biotics – probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics — confusing consumers as to what a -biotic is and its potential health benefit.

There’s an “overuse of the term probiotic as referring to any live microbe,” says Bob Hutkins, professor of food microbiology and the University of Nebraska (and a Science Advisor on TFA’s Advisory Board). Probiotics, according to the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), require documentation of both a health benefit and the strain.

“It’s a high bar to call something a probiotic,” he continues. “I read labels that say ‘contains probiotics’ and I’d say, the vast majority of the time, they’re incorrectly named if they’re named at all.”

Hutkins was part of a panel hosted by Food Navigator on “Feeding the Gut Microbiome: From Pre-, Pro-, and Postbiotics.” Speakers included leaders of food brands and -biotic supplement brands. 

Is a Fermented Food Probiotic? 

The issues surrounding probiotics and fermented foods have long been debated. TFA hosted a webinar on the topic in 2021, and it was the focus of a keynote session at TFA’s FERMENTATION 2021 conference.

Using the example of kimchi, Hutkins explains the fermented cabbage may contain live microbes that closely resemble a probiotic strain. But, according to scientific-backed definitions by ISAPP and the World Health Organization (WHO), “you can’t call that kimchi probiotic unless you isolated the strain, characterized the strain, done a clinical study and then that kimchi is going to be different from the kimchi you’ll make tomorrow. So it’s a challenge for companies that are producing fermented foods that probably have live microbes that can provide some benefits, but you can’t call them probiotics.” 

Hutkins encourages fermentation producers to use the term “rich in live microbes” on their label instead. If the product does include clinically tested probiotics (like in yogurt), “I really applaud the company that puts the genus and species on their package.”

Consumer Education

Miguel Freitas, PhD, vice president of health scientific affairs at Danone North America, says the conversation in the industry needs to change from just probiotics to strain specificity. 

“There are many consumers that are just seeking the word probiotic on the packaging. And they believe that probiotics will [help] everything from immune health to gut health,” Freitas says. “This is where I believe it can start to get tricky because there are so many products out there.”

Though the science around -biotics has evolved tremendously in the past two decades, consumers are overwhelmed and confused by all the choices.For example, he points to a new clothing brand that alleges the probiotics in their clothes are activated by heat. 

This is why the food and beverage industry needs to play an active role in consumer education, says Todd Beckman, president of Verb Biotics.

“They have a platform to talk about health, these specific ingredients and health benefits,” he says. “They have the megaphone to talk to consumers in a true and authentic way.”

But Beckman warns: “the brands that don’t really know what they’re doing or don’t stand for anything or don’t stand for science, they’re not going to be there tomorrow.” Consumers will abandon brands with unsubstantiated health claims. 

“If all of a sudden consumers aren’t believing in probiotics or what they can do, then it’s quite damaging,” he says.

Tom First, founder and CEO of Culture Pop probiotic soda, says that, though their brand has the clinical benefits of a verified and shelf-stable probiotic strain, they don’t lead with this complicated information in their marketing. Instead, they focus on flavor and it “being a fun drink,” figuring consumers can look to the Culture Pop website if they want to dive deeper.

Assorted -Biotics

Adding to consumer confusion: products on grocery shelves may now contain one of three -biotics – probiotics, prebiotics or postbiotics. Justin Green, PhD, director of scientific affairs at Cargill Health Technologies, says many think of -biotics as a daily supplement with a simple health benefit, like vitamin C.

“We really have to drive home there’s going to be different [-biotics] from different organisms, different fermentation techniques and most importantly different health benefits,” he says. 

Probiotics are live bacteria; prebiotics are food for the bacteria; and postbiotics are metabolites produced by the probiotics. 

Kombucha Sales Crawl

Two years after kombucha sales began to clock double-digit growth during the pandemic, sales are slowing, increasing only 1% over the last 52 weeks. But kombucha is still the sales leader in the fermented, non-alcoholic beverage space, representing nearly 85% of the category.

Kombucha pioneered the refrigerated functional beverage industry. For years it was one of the few beverages in the fermented, non-alcohol beverage space. But now there’s competition from new functional drinks — like prebiotic- and probiotic-infused sodas — that are diverting sales from kombucha.

“The consumer really is not OK with just drinking water. They want functionality out of everything they consume,” says Caroline Davidson, director of channel partnerships at SPINS (a data provider for natural, organic and specialty products). “Non-alcoholic beverages are traditionally not healthy options. To see that kombucha is actually one of the few segments contributing to double-digit growth (in that category), it’s really refreshing and encouraging.”

Those numbers were presented at KombuchaKon, the conference and trade show produced by Kombucha Brewers International (KBI). The event had been virtual the last two years, and brewers were anxious to meet in person again. Hundreds of brewers and brand leaders converged last week in Long Beach, Calif. 

Here are highlights from SPINS’s kombucha market analysis. 

Functional Beverages Grow

Refrigerated functional beverages are a top growth category across all sales channels — natural products stores, regional groceries and multi-outlet retailers (MULO) like WalMart, Target and CVS. Beverages made with -biotic cultures, high fiber sodas, water kefir sodas, drinking vinegars, kvass and tepache are all part of that growing category — and they compete with kombucha.

Shelf-stable functional beverages are growing even more quickly. For example, in the natural channel, sales of these drinks have increased nearly 25%, versus 4% for their refrigerated counterparts.

“It may not be refrigerated, but it still may be competition to a kombucha,” Davidson says. 

Major Brands Diversify 

Kombucha-adjacent products — like powdered kombucha and kombucha-flavored yogurt bites — are entering the market. So are kombuchas with no sugar or less than 1 gram of sugar.

“I am consistently seeing no sugar options in fermented beverages, which I know I’m speaking to an audience that already knows this, but fermentation doesn’t happen without sugar,” Davidson says. She notes more and more beverage categories “are seeing differentiation within probiotics of fermentation.” 

Of the five fastest growing kombucha brands,— only two – Wild Tonic and Better Booch – are selling just traditional kombucha or hard kombucha. The other three – Humm, Health-Ade and Rowdy Mermaid – have added new product lines. Humm and Health-Ade sell prebiotic sodas and Rowdy Mermaid offers tonics.

Health-Ade is marketing their brand as a “gut health beverage” instead of simply kombucha. In a statement, Health-Ade CEO and co-founder Diana Trout says: “We have seen a dramatic increase in consumer interest in gut health over the past year as people begin to realize just how important gut health is to immunity and overall health. We wanted to offer our customers something that doesn’t compromise on taste and has legitimate gut health benefits, and (our new prebiotic drink) Pop does just that.”

Defining the Product

KBI has been well aware of changes in the category. Two years ago, it released the kombucha Code of Practice, the first set of safety and quality standards for the industry.

“Kombucha” is not a protected product name, unlike “tequila” or “champagne.” With the code, KBI aims to protect kombucha as a traditional fermented beverage. But KBI also doesn’t want to eliminate kombucha brands that may pasteurize and sell in shelf-stable cans, process from a base or brew with sweeteners.

Joshua Rood, CEO and managing director of Dr Hops hard kombucha, attended the SPINS presentation and thinks KBI “is standing in the right place.”

“First, we have to define what kombucha is. And then how you label variations of that, like if it’s filtered or pasteurized. Then you can actually have clarity and transparency for consumers so they actually know what they’re getting,” Rood says. “Right now, we don’t have that. It’s very rough, it’s essentially just an honor system.”

Rood emphasizes he has no problem with kombucha brands not brewing with traditional methods. But he says there needs to be a classification system and transparent labeling of how a kombucha is made. “There’s a lot of room for education,” he says.

Dr Hops, for example, prints a nutrition fact panel and calorie listing on their hard kombucha, even though most beer, wine and spirits are not legally required to do so.

“We try to be massively over-communicative on our labels,” Rood says. “And, if you’re looking at our labels from a calorie stance, it doesn’t look good because we have such high alcohol content. We’re not competitive in calories. But if we put it on there, people will learn that it’s 10% alcohol and most of the calories come from the alcohol.”

Shift in Retail Channels

Sales in natural stores – the retail channel that helped launch the kombucha industry have slowed, actually declining 5% over the past year. . But sales over the same period grew 3% in MULO outlets and 2% at convenience stores.

“People are still trying to find outlets where they can get everything in one trip,” Davidson says. “We’re seeing a lot more consolidation of what people are purchasing in one trip or fewer trips per month.”

Hard Kombucha “Massively Outperforming”

SPINS’s “flavored malt beverages” category includes a number of alcoholic drinks that don’t contain malt. While hard seltzers have long dominated here, six of the 10 fastest-growing brands in natural retailers are now hard kombucha brands: Boochcraft, Flying Embers, June Shine, Kyla, Strange Beast and Nova Easy. 

“Natural retailers are fully embracing this as a new category and it’s paying off exponentially,” Davidson says.

Hard kombucha sales are still small overall, at $58.31 million, are driving growth in the category and “massively outperforming hard cider,” Davidson says. Dollar growth for hard kombucha is almost 60%, while sales of hard cider are declining. Sales for the hard seltzer – including category leaders White Claw and Truly – are also slipping in all retail channels.

Microbiologists have long considered that there are two distinct categories of energy conservation in microorganisms: fermentation and respiration. Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) use fermentation, making it central to food and drink production and preservation since the dawn of man. 

But researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Rice University discovered a LAB species that uses a hybrid metabolism, combining both fermentation and respiration.

“These are two very different things, to the extent that we classify bacteria as basically one or the other,” said Caroline Ajo-Franklin, a bioscientist at Rice University and co-author of the study. “There are examples of bacteria that can do both, but that’s like saying I can ride a bicycle or I can drive a car. You never do both at the same time.”

“What we discovered is a LAB that blends the two, like an organism that’s not warm- or cold-blooded but has features of both,” she said. “That’s the big surprise, because we didn’t know it was possible for an organism to blend these two distinct metabolisms.”

The species — lactiplantibacillus plantarum — is what scientists call a bacterial bully because it takes advantage of two distinct metabolic processes, according to a press release from Rice on the study. These systems were “not previously known to coexist to acquire the fuel they burn for energy.”

“Using this blended metabolism, lactic acid bacteria like L. plantarum grow better and do a faster job acidifying its environment,” said Maria Marco, a professor in the food science and technology department at UC Davis and the study’s co-author [and a TFA Science Advisor].

The discovery is significant for food and chemical production. New technologies that use LAB could now produce healthier and tastier ferments, minimize food waste and change the flavors and textures of fermented food.

“We may also find that this blended metabolism has benefits in other habitats, such as the digestive tract,” Marco said. “The ability to manipulate it could improve gut health.”

The study began with a puzzle: the realization that genes responsible for the electron transfer pathway in mainly respiratory organisms also appear in the LAB genome. “It was like finding the metabolic genes for a snake in a whale,” Ajo-Franklin said. “It didn’t make a lot of sense, and we thought, ‘We’ve got to figure this out.’”

While the Davis lab studied the genome, the team at Rice  carried out fermentation experiments on kale. 

“It wasn’t our first choice,” said Rice alumna and co-lead author Sara Tejedor-Sanz (now a senior scientific engineer in the Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab).

“We performed some initial experiments with cabbage, since that’s a known fermented food — sauerkraut and kimchi — in which lactic acid bacteria are present,” she said. “But there were technical difficulties and it didn’t turn out so well. So we looked for another food to ferment where LAB could be found in its ecological niches. 

“Kale has compounds like vitamins and quinones that lactic acid bacteria use as cofactors in their metabolism, and are also involved in interacting with the electrodes,” she said. “We also found fermenting kale to make juice was a trend. It sounded perfect for our biochemical reactors.” 

The study showed LAB enhances metabolism through a FLavin-based Extracellular Electron Transfer (FLEET) pathway that expresses two genes (ndh-2 and pp1A) associated with iron reduction, a step in the process of stripping and incorporating electrons into ATP (adenosine triphosphate (ATP), energy-carrying molecule).

Because LAB’s genome has evolved to be small, thus requiring less energy to maintain, the wide conservation of FLEET must serve a purpose, Ajo-Franklin said.

“Our hypothesis is this helps bacteria get established in new environments,” she said. “It’s a way to kick-start their metabolisms and outcompete their neighbors by changing the environment to be more acidic. It’s being a bully.”

That the FLEET pathway can be triggered with electrodes offers many possibilities, she said. “We found we can use the hybrid metabolism in food fermentation,” Ajo-Franklin said. “Now we have a way to change how food may taste and avoid failed food fermentations by using electronics.”

“We may also find that this blended metabolism has benefits in other habitats, such as the digestive tract,” Marco said. “The ability to manipulate it could improve gut health.”

Ajo-Franklin noted LAB are commonly found in the microbiomes of many organisms, including humans. “You can already buy it in health food stores as a probiotic,” she said. “The human gut is an anaerobic environment, so LAB have to keep a redox balance. If it oxidizes carbon to gain energy, it has to figure out a way to reduce carbon somewhere else.

“Now we think if we provide another electron donor or acceptor, we could promote the growth of positive bacteria over negative bacteria.”

UC Davis graduate student Eric Stevens is co-lead author of the study. Co-authors are Rice graduate student Siliang Li; at UC Davis,  graduate students Peter Finnegan and James Nelson, and Andre Knoesen, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, at UC Davis; and Samuel Light, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Microbiology at the University of Chicago. 

Ajo-Franklin is a professor of biosciences and a CPRIT Scholar. Marco is a professor of food science and technology.

The National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, the Department of Energy Office of Basic Energy Sciences and a Rodgers University fellowship supported the research. 

The study results were published in the journal eLife

Yogurt Alters Gut Microbiome

It’s widely appreciated that consuming high-quality yogurt can aid a healthy diet. Now new research shows eating yogurt changes the composition of the human gut microbiome.

In a new human study published in BMC Microbiology, researchers studied the microbiome of European twins. Results found those regularly eating yogurt had less visceral fat mass, reduced insulin levels and an increase of bacterial species in the gut. Strains S. thermophilus, B. animalis subsp. lactis., S. thermophilus and B. animalis subsp. lactis were all present in yogurt eaters.
The study also found the yogurt bacteria are “transient members of the gut microbiome and do not durably engraft within the gut lumen.”

Read more (BMC Microbiology)

Microbes on our bodies outnumber our human cells. Can we improve our health using microbes?

“(Humans) are minuscule compared to the genetic content of our microbiomes,” says Maria Marco, PhD, professor of food science at the University of California, Davis (and a TFA Advisory Board Member). “We now have a much better handle that microbes are good for us.” 

Marco was a featured speaker at an Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS) webinar, “What’s What?! Probiotics, Postbiotics, Prebiotics, Synbiotics and Fermented Foods.” Also speaking was Karen Scott, PhD, professor at University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and co-director of the university’s Centre for Bacteria in Health and Disease.

While probiotic-containing foods and supplements have been around for decades – or, in the case of fermented foods, tens of thousands of years – they have become more common recently . But “as the terms relevant to this space proliferate, so does confusion,” states IAFNS. 

Using definitions created by the International Scientific Association for Postbiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), Marco and Scott presented the attributes of fermented foods, probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics and postbiotics.  

The majority of microbes in the human body are in the digestive tract, Marco notes: “We have frankly very few ways we can direct them towards what we need for sustaining our health and well being.” Humans can’t control age or genetics and have little impact over environmental factors. 

What we can control, though, are the kinds of foods, beverages and supplements we consume.

Fermented Foods

It’s estimated that one third of the human diet globally is made up of fermented foods. But this is a diverse category that shares one common element: “Fermented foods are made by microbes,” Marco adds. “You can’t have a fermented food without a microbe.”

This distinction separates true fermented foods from those that look fermented but don’t have microbes involved. Quick pickles or cucumbers soaked in a vinegar brine, for example, are not fermented. And there are fermented foods that originally contained live microbes,  but where those microbes are killed during production — in sourdough bread, shelf-stable pickles and veggies, sausage, soy sauce, vinegar, wine, most beers, coffee and chocolate. Fermented foods that contain live, viable microbes include yogurt, kefir, most cheeses, natto, tempeh, kimchi, dry fermented sausages, most kombuchas and some beers. 

“There’s confusion among scientists and the public about what is a fermented food,” Marco says.

Fermented foods provide health benefits by transforming food ingredients, synthesizing nutrients and providing live microbes.There is some evidence  they aid digestive health (kefir, sourdough), improve mood and behavior (wine, beer, coffee), reduce inflammatory bowel syndrome (sauerkraut, sourdough), aid weight loss and fight obesity (yogurt, kimchi), and enhance immunity (kimchi, yogurt), bone health (yogurt, kefir, natto) and the cardiovascular system (yogurt, cheese, coffee, wine, beer, vinegar). But there are only a few studies on humans  that have examined these topics. More studies of fermented foods are needed to document and prove these benefits.

Probiotics 

Probiotics, on the other hand, have clinical evidence documenting their health benefits. “We know probiotics improve human health,” Marco says. 

The concept of probiotics dates back to the early 20th century, but the word “probiotic” has now become a household term. Most scientific studies involving probiotics look at their benefit to the digestive tract, but new research is examining their impact on the respiratory system and in aiding vaginal health.

Probiotics are different from fermented foods because they are defined at the strain level and their genomic sequence is known, Marco adds. Probiotics should be alive at the time of consumption in order to provide a health benefit.

Postbiotics

Postbiotics are dead microorganisms. It is a relatively new term — also referred to as parabiotics, non-viable probiotics, heat-killed probiotics and tyndallized probiotics — and there’s emerging research around the health benefits of consuming these inanimate cells. 

“I think we’ll be seeing a lot more attention to this concept as we begin to understand how probiotics work and gut microbiomes work and the specific compounds needed to modulate our health,” according to Marco.

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are, according to ISAPP, “A substrate selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit on the host.”

“It basically means a food source for microorganisms that live in or on a source,” Scott says. “But any candidate for a prebiotic must confer a health benefit.”

Prebiotics are not processed in the small intestine. They reach the large intestine undigested, where they serve as nutrients for beneficial microorganisms in our gut microbiome.

Synbiotics

Synbiotics are mixtures of probiotics and prebiotics and stimulate a host’s resident bacteria. They are composed of live microorganisms and substrates that demonstrate a health benefit when combined.

Scott notes that, in human trials with probiotics, none of the currently recognized probiotic species (like lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) appear in fecal samples existing probiotics.

“There must be something missing in what we’re doing in this field,” she says. “We need new probiotics. I’m not saying existing probiotics don’t work or we shouldn’t use them. But I think that now that we have the potential to develop new probiotics, they might be even better than what we have now.”

She sees great potential in this new class of -biotics. 

Both Scott and Marco encouraged nutritionists to work with clients on first  improving their diets before adding supplements. The -biotics stimulate what’s in the gut, so a diverse diet is the best starting point.

Applications are being accepted for the 2022 Glenn Gibson Early Career Researcher Prize, sponsored by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP). The winner will receive $1,500 U.S. cash and an invitation to present at the 2022 ISAPP annual meeting. Click here for application details, due Nov. 19.

In 2021, ISAPP launched the Early Career Researcher Prize. As this initiative was spearheaded by ISAPP co-founder and longtime board member Prof. Glenn Gibson, this award was renamed to honor him: “Glenn Gibson Early Career Researcher Prize”. The intent of this award is to recognize excellence in research in early career researchers in the fields of probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics or fermented foods.