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Is probiotic colonization essential?

By Prof. Maria Marco, PhD, Department of Food Science & Technology, University of California, Davis

It is increasingly appreciated by consumers, physicians, and researchers alike that the human digestive tract is colonized by trillions of bacteria and many of those bacterial colonists have important roles in promoting human health. Because of this association between the gut microbiota and health, it seems appropriate to suggest that probiotics consumed in foods, beverages, or dietary supplements should also colonize the human digestive tract. But do probiotics really colonize? What is meant by the term “colonization” in the first place? If probiotics don’t colonize, does that mean that they are ineffective? In that case, should we be searching for new probiotic strains that have colonization potential?

My answer to the first question is no – probiotics generally do not colonize the digestive tract or other sites on the human body. Before leaping to conclusions on what this means for probiotic efficacy, “colonization” as defined here means the permanent, or at least long-term (weeks, months, or years) establishment at a specific body site. Colonization can also result in engraftment with consequential changes to the gut microbiota composition and function. For colonization to occur, the probiotic should multiply and form a stably replicating population. This outcome is distinct from a more transient, short-term (a few days to a week or so) persistence of a probiotic. For transient probiotics, it has been shown in numerous ways that they are metabolically active in the intestine and might even grow and divide. However, they are not expected to replicate to high numbers or displace members of the native gut microbiota.

Although some studies have shown that digestive tracts of infants can be colonized by probiotics (weeks to months), the intestinal persistence times of probiotic strains in children and adults is generally much shorter, lasting only few days. This difference is likely due to the resident gut microbiota that develops during infancy and tends to remain relatively stable throughout adulthood. Even with perturbations caused by antibiotics or foodborne illness, the gut microbiome tends to be resilient to the long-term establishment of exogenous bacterial strains. In instances where probiotic colonization or long-term persistence was found, colonization potential has been attributed more permissive gut microbiomes specific to certain individuals. In either case, for colonization to occur, any introduced probiotic has to overcome the significant ecological constraints inherent to existing, stable ecosystems.

Photo by http://benvandenbroecke.be/ Copyright, ISAPP 2019.

This leads to the next question: Can probiotics confer health benefits even if they do not colonize? My answer is definitely yes! Human studies on probiotics with positive outcomes have not relied on intestinal colonization by those microbes to cause an effect. Instead of colonizing, probiotics can alter the digestive tract in other ways such as by producing metabolites that modulate the activity of the gut microbiota or stimulate the intestinal epithelium directly. These effects could happen even on short-time scales, ranging from minutes to hours.

Should we be searching for new probiotic strains that have greater colonization potential? By extension of what we know about the resident human gut microbiota, it is increasingly attractive to identify bacteria that colonize the human digestive tract in the same way. In some situations, colonization might be preferred or even essential to impacting health, such as by engrafting a microbe that performs critical metabolic functions in the gut (e.g. break down complex carbohydrates). However, colonization also comes with risks of unintended consequences and the loss of ability to control the dose, frequency, and duration of exposure to that particular microbe.

Just as most pharmaceutical drugs have a transient impact on the human body, why should we expect more from probiotics? Many medications need to be taken life-long in order manage chronic conditions. Single or even repeated doses of any medication are similarly not expected to cure disease. Therefore, we should not assume a priori that any observed variations in probiotic efficacy are due to a lack of colonization. To the contrary, the consumption of probiotics could be sufficient for a ripple effect in the intestine, subtly altering the responses of the gut microbiome and intestinal epithelium in ways that are amplified throughout the body. Instead of aiming for engraftment directly or hand-wringing due to a lack of colonization, understanding the precise molecular interactions and cause/effect consequences of probiotic introduction will lead to a path that ultimately determines whether colonization is needed or just a distraction.

The Children of Masiphumelele Township

Gregor Reid PhD MBA FCAHS FRSC, Professor, Western University and Scientist, Lawson Health Research Institute, London, Canada

Just off the main road from Cape Town, South Africa to Simon’s Town, sits Masiphumelele township where challenges of poverty, malnutrition, HIV and the risk of violence face people every day.

It is also the location for the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre, a safe haven that provides adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health services alongside educational and recreational activities for youth living in Masiphumelele and surrounding areas.

To understand some of the dangers that children face, in 2017, about 270,000 people in South Africa were newly infected with HIV, adding to one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world. The Tutu Youth Centre aims at helping educate youth to reduce their risk of becoming another HIV statistic.

I was invited there by University of Cape Town Professor Jo-Ann Passmore, a woman not only recognized for her research but whose passion for helping others is reflected in her warm smile (4th from left in group photo). She asked if I would be interested in holding a workshop to illustrate to the youth how using sachets of probiotic bacteria could empower them. I jumped at the chance. On an afternoon break from the Keystone Symposium, thirty researchers joined me along with Jo-Ann and my wife Debbie, a teacher of children with learning disabilities.

After a tour of the areas where children learn on computers, play games in safety, or have personal discussions about sexual health, everyone filled the room with a stunning backdrop of the Nobel Laureate’s image. Having been privileged to meet the Archbishop when he was hosted by St. Joseph’s Healthcare Foundation in 2008, it was a nerve-tingling experience for me.

Giving a lecture on beneficial microbes is hard enough to peers sitting in the back of the room, but to do so with young South Africans was more somewhat daunting. However, it proved to be a lot of fun especially when we had to identify kids who were good leaders (the boys all pointed to a girl), who liked to make stuff and sell it to others (two boys stood out). By the end, we had picked the ‘staff’ of a new company.

The next step was for four groups to decide on the company’s name, what products they’d make from the probiotic sachets (the options were many including yoghurt, cereals, fruit juices, maize), what marketing tools they would use and who they would target to obtain a respectable income.

Interestingly, several of the conference participants seemed less engaged, as if they had never considered how microbiology research could affect real lives. In front of them were children facing huge challenges on a day-to-day basis. In one group, the kids were quiet until my wife brought out pens and paper, then they went to town designing products, names and labels. A lesson for me on how different people need different stimuli to become engaged. The faculty left early to beat the traffic back to Cape Town, so unfortunately, they did not hear the outcome of the children’s work.

When we re-assembled to present the results, I was impressed with what could be created in such a short time. My favourite was the Amazing Maize, a bottle shaped like a corn cob with the idea it would contain fermented maize. It emphasized the importance of marketing and for products to taste and look good to be purchased.

It has been over ten years since Archbishop Tutu applauded us for the Western Heads East project and thanked us for empowering women and youth and contributing to nutrition in Africa. Since then, thanks to the huge efforts of Western staff and students, and more recently IDRC funding and partnerships especially with Yoba-for-life, Heifer International and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, over 260,000 people in east Africa are now consuming probiotic yoghurt every week. The children of the South African townships were maybe too young to join in this new wave of microenterprises, but at least now they have heard about it and the importance of fermented food and beneficial bacteria.

In the background of the workshop several wonderful women committed to start up a new production unit using the Yoba/Fiti sachets developed by Yoba-for-life. I left them some sachets for them to try out the process.

But it was me who left with the biggest lesson on how precious each life is, and how those of us with the knowledge, need to provide the means for others to use their own talents to fulfill the purposes of their lives.

No better way than to start with the children.

live-dead-probiotics

Dead bacteria – despite potential for benefit – are NOT probiotics

This blog is a re-posting of a blog initially published on www.usprobiotics.org on July 5. By Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders

At the 2018 International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) meeting in Singapore, two renowned speakers reported unpublished research documenting the health benefits of dead bacteria.

Prof. Hill showed that an inactivated Lactobacillus strain reduced anxious behavior, reduced cortisol levels, and impacted the microbiome in a mouse model. Prof. Patrice Cani showed that heat-killed Akkermansia muciniphila were sufficient to ameliorate obesity and diabetes in mice. Both professors made the point that these microbial preparations were not probiotics.

Prof. Colin Hill is the lead author on the oft-cited and -downloaded (over 40,000 times) ISAPP consensus paper reaffirming the definition of probiotics, which emphasizes that probiotics must be alive when administered. This, of course, does not preclude health effects of dead bacteria. One just must remember that dead bacteria are NOT probiotics. Many different types of microbe-derived substances such as metabolites, cell wall fragments, enzymes, and neurochemicals, can have beneficial physiological effects. A 2016 review by de Almada et al. lists a couple dozen published studies of physiologically active dead bacteria.

Preserving the long-accepted definition of probiotics as ‘live microbes’ is important to the many stakeholders involved in the field. Consumers should be able to purchase a product labeled as ‘probiotic’ and know that it contains an effective level of live microbes. Regulators should know that a product without an adequate level of live microbes is fraudulent if called a probiotic. Scientists should be able to use the term and have reviewers and readers understand that they are referring to functions of live microbes. An agreed-upon definition enables us to be precise when discussing an issue. Saying that because dead bacteria have a health effect and they should be called ‘probiotics’ is like saying that because vitamin D has a health benefit, the term ‘vitamin A’ should include vitamin D.

What are implications of the fact that dead microbes may have health effects?

Stewards of the probiotic field can expect increased frustration with popular press writers. I’ll use a recent example to make this point. The June 2018 Cooking Light Magazine /Special Gut Health Issue included an article that lists sourdough bread as a top probiotic-containing fermented food. When the error about misusing the term ‘probiotic’ to describe a food that contained no live probiotic bacteria was pointed out to the editor by Jo Ann Hattner, MPH RD author of Gut Insight, Cooking Light chose to ignore advice from an expert and justify their mistake by using an irrelevant observation that both live and dead cells in probiotic products may generate beneficial biological responses. Apparently, the expertise she derived from a paper that described the “probiotic paradox” trumped the considered opinions of global expert scientists/researchers and the FAO/WHO, who agree that probiotics must be alive when administered. It’s quite a simple concept. It is true that some dead microbes may have some health benefit (although evidence of such an effect is much lower than that available from controlled human trials on actual probiotics), but they are NOT probiotics.

Confusion. Some audiences will be confused by the idea that probiotics that are killed can have health benefits. Inaccurate writers, such as the Cooking Light author above, will perpetuate this error. This is unfortunate, since the probiotic concept is a long-standing one, backed by much mechanistic and clinical evidence. Conflating probiotics with dead bacteria will lead to confusion over important aspects of an effective probiotic product.

Overages.  It is not uncommon for commercial products to be formulated with live microbes at time of manufacture that far exceed the number claimed on the label. This is to assure that the product meets label claim at the end of shelf life, as probiotics often die to some extent during storage. Sometimes this ‘overage’ can reach 10-fold more than the level guaranteed on the product, although more typically it’s 2- to 5-fold. If over the course of shelf life the viable count drops to label claim, then dead microbes may comprise as much as 90% of the microbes present. We don’t know if these dead bacteria – although no longer probiotics – have physiological benefits, as no studies have been conducted on this form of inactivated cells, but it’s an interesting possibility. When we study a probiotic product, perhaps that product needs to be characterized by both the level of live and dead microbes that are present. Means of inactivation, such as heat, pressure, irradiation, or sonication, may impact the physiological activity of the resulting dead cells.

Opportunity.  Keeping probiotics alive in commercial products is a challenge. Research such as Prof. Cani’s targets an expanded range of microbes – many isolated from the human GI tract – that cannot be easily grown and stabilized in commercial products. Further, these microbes lack the history of safe use that food-associated microbes have, and so administration of high numbers of these next-generation probiotics will require proof of safety. If these microbes can be killed and still deliver health benefits, the commercialization process could be simplified.

ISAPP may need to consider convening another consensus panel to address these newly emerging terms, such as postbiotic and paraprobiotic. Then we can all be on the same page when using these terms, which have important scientific, nutritional and clinical impact. Of course, even if ISAPP does this, authors may still choose to ignore it.

blog foodomics image

Global FoodOmics: A Crowd-Sourced Window Into Microbes In Our Foods

January 25, 2018. By Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD , Dairy & Food Culture Technologies

Among the factors under our control, diet may be the most important determinant of our gut microbiota. Observations from the American Gut Project suggest that foods containing live microbes increase fecal bacterial diversity, which is generally associated with a healthy gut.

An initiative, Global FoodOmics, was launched earlier this year at the University of California San Diego under the auspices of the American Gut Project to learn more about bacteria in foods and the small molecules they produce. Dr. Julia Gauglitz is the project manager. Food samples (over 2000 have been collected to date) have been analyzed for their small molecule composition and will be tested by 16S rDNA sequencing to determine the bacterial species present. Although currently in its early stages, the aim for this project is to inventory the vast different foods consumed by people around the world.

Although many fermented foods (beer, bread, wine, kefir, many cheeses and others) rely on yeast or molds as fermentation or ripening agents, this project will aim to detect bacterial DNA, but these DNA approaches cannot distinguish between life and dead bacteria.  Labels and other descriptors accompanying submitted food samples may help determine if the species detected are likely to be alive. Fermented foods that retain live bacteria are more likely to influence our colonizing microbiota.

The small molecules being assayed are not limited to the ones produced by microbes. They may be due to microbial growth in the food (by food fermentation microbes or perhaps by spoilage or food poisoning microbes), may be innate to the food, or may be intentional or incidental (e.g., pesticides) additives to foods.

The intent is to turn Global FoodOmics into a crowd-sourced project. It will join the American Gut Project as an avenue for citizens to directly participate in science and enable the project to make all of the data publically available to other researchers and clinicians.

It is notable that this project is not the first attempt to understand the microbial components of food. Food microbiologists for decades have been assaying foods for microbes used to produce food, responsible for food spoilage and linked to food poisonings.  Recently, Prof. Bob Hutkins, University of Nebraska, on behalf of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) and with support from the National Dairy Council, embarked on a project to learn the state of knowledge about levels of live microbes in fermented foods. They dug into the published literature and emerged with “A survey of live microorganisms in fermented foods”, In Press at Food Microbiology. This paper gives us a summary of what is known about populations of live microbes in fermented foods, information that is very useful for people wanting to add live microbes to their diet.

Another effort to understand microbes in foods is the Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain, a partnership between IBM Research and Mars Inc. This project, focused on food safety, aims to develop a baseline of normal microbial communities in foods.

Both Global FoodOmics and the Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain will leverage modern DNA sequencing technologies to allow us better understand the microbes associated with foods. Global FoodOmics is the first project to understand the microbes and molecules in foods, by pairing small molecule metabolomics measurements with rDNA sequencing.

stool sample for lab

Microbiome Analysis – Hype or Helpful?

September 2017. By Karen Scott, PhD, Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Since we have realized that we carry around more microbial than human cells, and that these microbial inhabitants are important to maintain our health, searching for the bacterial species that are implicated in causing disease has become the holy grail of microbiology. However, to understand which bacteria are unnaturally present or absent in a disease state, we first have to understand what constitutes normal. This is hampered by the fact that we are all different – and our microbial communities are also all different. In fact, the faecal bacterial community in samples taken months apart from one person will be identifiable as coming from that specific healthy adult, but the community will be quite distinct from samples from any other healthy adult. In the same way, the microbial community of two individuals suffering from the same disease will be different.

Despite these differences, scientists have managed to establish some facts over the past 15 years. Too many Proteobacteria, which includes Enterobacteria and E.coli, in your large intestine is not generally good news. Firstly, it means that conditions in the large intestine are probably not as anaerobic as they should be. Secondly, an expansion in these populations usually means a decline in something else – after all food and places to live are finite resources. Bacterial diversity in the adult intestine is also important. The main factor that has been found across many different diseases is that bacterial diversity is lower in diseased individuals than their healthy counterparts. This does not necessarily mean that a low diversity is causing the disease, as various features of the disease (including any antibiotic therapy, inflammation, decreased or increased transit time) may all themselves affect the diversity of the microbiota.

Although scientists have not succeeded in defining a ‘healthy microbiota,’ there is an increasing trend to get your microbiome tested. Entrepreneurial microbiome companies are bombarding us with offers to “send in a small sample and find out about your gut microbiota”. All of course, for a ‘reasonable’ price. So, should you?

This really depends why you want to know, and what level of detail of analysis is being offered. Remember the orders of taxonomy? Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.  Some companies identify the bacteria in your faeces only to the phylum level. This is a taxonomic level above the level needed to differentiate mammals and fish (these are ‘classes’). If you told someone that there were more fish in the Indian Ocean than mammals would this be a surprise? It would be such an expected fact it would be meaningless. This is similar to describing the microbiota at a phylum level – Bacteroidetes numbers versus Firmicutes numbers. Such numbers are meaningless. However, continuing the fish analogy, if you said that there were more mackerel than tuna in the North Atlantic Ocean this becomes a bit more meaningful. The fisherman immediately knows what type of fish he is more likely to catch, and perhaps even which net to use. The same is true of the microbiome. Telling someone that he/she has a lot of Enterobacteria and few Roseburia is actually useful as we know from studies that this represents an abnormal balance of bacteria and something should be done to redress this. Yet the bottom line health consequence of this abnormal balance of bacteria remains to be determined. So getting your gut microbiome sequenced could be useful – depending on what level of information you will receive, and what you are prepared to do about it.

And so we come to the next problem. Having established what your gut microbiota is, how are you going to make it better? And will that make YOU better? At the moment scientists don’t really have a good answer to these questions. Specific prebiotics can certainly be useful to increase the numbers of some bacteria generally assumed to be beneficial – such as Bifidobacterium, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and even Roseburia species. But it is not really clear what the exact health benefits of such an increase in bacterial numbers would be. Health claims on prebiotics are currently limited to ‘improve intestinal transit’ and ‘lower the glycaemic response’. If you found out that your microbiota had a low diversity, increasing the variety of foods in your diet, in particular the fibre component, could certainly improve this. Our gut microbiota basically relies on our undigested food to survive, so providing a greater amount and more types of food containing fibre and prebiotics will definitely encourage populations of diverse bacteria to expand. In addition to improving digestive health, fibre fermentation by gut bacteria also results in the production of microbial products that have been shown to have health benefits.

So by all means get your gut microbiome analyzed if you want to, but perhaps instead, save your money and just increase your prebiotic and fibre consumption, which will increase levels of the potentially beneficial bacteria that are already there in your gut.

kombucha

Kombucha: Trend or New Staple?

September 2017. By Prof. Bob Hutkins, Khem Shahani Professor of Food Science, University of Nebraska, Department of Food Science and Technology, Lincoln.

This blog post is adapted from a piece published by the Lincoln Journal Star. The article, first published May 4, 2016 and written by Prof. Bob Hutkins, appeared as a response to a reader’s question: “I keep hearing about kombucha… What is this stuff?”

Kombucha (pronounced kom-BOO-chuh) is made by fermenting sweetened tea using a combination of yeasts and bacteria. This mixture of live cultures that starts the fermentation is called SCOBY, short for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.” The SCOBY takes the form of a gooey mat that can be re-used for each batch or shared with friends.

Kombucha is one of many trendy fermented foods, like kimchi and kefir, that are now found everywhere. No longer just the fare of hipster cafes and posh restaurants, you can find kombucha at your local grocery store—or even at Walmart.

Kombucha’s origins go back at least 2,000 years, to China; the drink gradually spread throughout Asia and Europe. In the U.S., kits for home-brewing kombucha became available to consumers in the early 1990s, and bottled versions soon appeared on grocery store shelves.

Several factors may explain the popularity of kombucha. First, many people like the flavor: uniquely sweet and sour, with a vinegary overtone. Some ethanol (alcohol) may also be present, although commercial products must contain less than the legal limit of 0.5 percent. The fermentation reaction yields carbon dioxide, which gives kombucha a pleasant fizziness. Flavor combinations are endless, from ginger, mango, and blood orange to lavender and cinnamon.

It’s probably the suggested health properties that are most responsible for the kombucha craze. The live cultures in some blends have antimicrobial activity, which may have been valuable in past eras when antibiotics were not available. However, these properties depend on the particular mix of microbes, which varies from batch to batch or brand to brand. Other suggested health benefits range from improved gut health and digestion to treatment of cancer and other diseases. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence to support these health claims.

It may be that kombucha is not for everyone—the acidic nature of the drink may not sit well for some people. Microbiologists have also expressed concern that home-brewed kombucha could possibly contain toxin-producing fungi. (See related post on making safe fermented foods at home.)

Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that many consumers are drinking kombucha. Annual sales in the U.S. are over $500 million, with double-digit growth. Around half of the coveted 25-to-34 age group (i.e. millennials) are kombucha drinkers. Yes, it’s popular now, but it also seems that kombucha is likely to be around for a while.

 

Bob Hutkins is the Food Doc. He is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches and conducts research in food science and food microbiology. Questions on any topic related to food, food safety, food ingredients and food processing can be sent to the Food Doc at features@nulljournalstar.com.