Research on the microbiome and health benefits of fermented foods – a 40 year perspective

By Prof. Bob Hutkins, PhD, University of Nebraska Lincoln, USA

Many ISAPPers remember when fermented foods attracted hardly any serious attention from scientists outside the field. Certainly, most clinicians and health professionals gave little notice to fermented foods. In the decades before there were artisan bakeries and microbreweries proliferating on Main Street USA, even consumers did not seem very interested in fermented foods.

When I began my graduate program at the University of Minnesota in 1980, I was very interested in microbiology, but I did not know a lot about fermented foods. Accordingly, I was offered two possible research projects. One involved growing flasks of Staphylococcus aureus, concentrating the enterotoxins, feeding that material to lab animals, and then waiting for the emetic response.

My other option was to study how the yogurt bacterium, Streptococcus thermophilus, metabolized lactose in milk. This was the easiest career choice ever, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Indeed, that lab at Minnesota was one of only a handful in North America that conducted research on the physiology, ecology, and genetics of microbes important in fermented foods. Of the few labs in North America delving into fermented foods, most emphasized dairy fermentations, although some studied vegetable, meat, beer, wine, and bread fermentations. Globally, labs in Europe, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand were more engaged in fermented foods research than we were in North America, but overall, the field did not draw high numbers of interested researchers or students.

That’s not to say there weren’t exciting and important research discoveries occurring. Most research at that time was focused on the relevant functional properties of the microbes. This included carbohydrate and protein metabolism, flavor and texture development, tolerance to acid and salt, bacteriocin production, and bacteriophage resistance. Despite their importance, even fewer labs studied yeasts and molds, and the focus was on lactic acid bacteria.

Other researchers were more interested in the health benefits of fermented foods. Again, yogurt and other cultured dairy foods attracted the most interest. According to PubMed, there were about 70 randomized clinical trials (RCTs) with yogurt as the intervention between 1981 and 2001. Over the next 20 years, there were more than 400 yogurt RCTs.

Fast forward a generation or two to 2021, and now fermented foods and beverages are all the rage. Certainly, having the molecular tools to sequence genomes and interrogate entire microbiomes of these foods has contributed to this new-found interest. Scanning the recent literature, there are dozens of published papers on microbiomes (and metabolomes) of dozens of fermented foods, including kombucha (and their associated symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast, known as SCOBYs), kefir, kimchi, beer (and barrels), cheese (and cheese rinds), wine, vinegar, miso and soy sauce, and dry fermented sausage.

It’s not just fermentation researchers who are interested in fermented foods. For ecologists and systems biologists, fermented foods serve as model systems to understand succession and community dynamics and how different groups of bacteria, yeast, and mold compete for resources.

Moreover, consumers can benefit when companies that manufacture fermented foods take advantage of these tools. The data obtained from fermented food microbiota analyses can help to correlate microbiome composition to quality attributes or identify potential sources of contamination.

Importantly, it is also now possible to screen microbiomes of fermented foods for gene clusters that encode potential health traits. Indeed, in addition to microbiome analyses of fermented foods, assessing their health benefits is now driving much of the research wave.

As mentioned above, more than 400 yogurt RCTs were published in the past two decades, but alas, there were far fewer RCTs reported for other fermented foods. This situation, however, is already changing. The widely reported fiber and fermented foods clinical trial led by Stanford researchers was published in Cell earlier this year and showed both microbiome and immune effects. Other RCTs are now in various stages, according to

Twenty years ago, when ISAPP was formed, I suspect few of us would have imagined that the science of fermented foods would be an ISAPP priority. If you need proof that it is, look no further than the 2021 consensus paper on fermented foods. It remains one of the most highly viewed papers published by Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Further evidence of the broad interest in fermented foods was the recently held inaugural meeting of The Fermentation Association. Participants included members of the fermented foods industry, culture suppliers, nutritionists, chefs, food writers, journalists, retailers, scientists and researchers.

Several ISAPP board members also presented seminars, including this one who remains very happy to have made a career of studying fermented foods rather than the emetic response of microbial toxins.

Do antibiotics ‘wipe out’ your gut bacteria?

By Dr. Karen Scott, University of Aberdeen, UK

Antibiotics have been an important tool in medicine to kill pathogenic bacteria and treat infectious diseases for many decades. But for most of those decades, scientists had limited awareness of the community of ‘good’ microbes that reside in our guts and other parts of the body. Now that we have ample evidence of the beneficial functions of these abundant resident microbial communities, we need to be aware of the potential impact antibiotics may have on them – and whether antibiotics might wipe them out, creating a different health problem.

Antibiotics act against basic cellular functions of microbes – targeting cell wall synthesis, DNA/RNA synthesis, protein synthesis and folate synthesis. In order to avoid the effects of the antibiotics, bacteria can either alter their own target molecule so that the antibiotic is ineffective, actively pump the antibiotic out of the cell, or inactivate the antibiotic. With bacteria constantly trying to survive in the face of antibiotics, we are in a continuous race to ensure that the disease-causing bacteria we are trying to eliminate remain susceptible to the antibiotics used to treat them.

The action of antibiotics against bacteria can be classified according to:

  • Bacteriostatic (inhibiting growth of the target microorganism) vs. bactericidal (killing cells)
  • Narrow spectrum (acting against a few specific bacteria) vs. broad spectrum (acting indiscriminately against many bacteria).

Clearly an ‘ideal’ antibiotic would be narrow spectrum and bactericidal, rapidly killing only the target bacteria. In contrast a broad spectrum, bacteriostatic antibiotic may only inhibit growth of the target bacterium and at the same time may be bactericidal to others.

And here we come to the basic problem of antibiotic use in general medicine. When a patient attends the doctor’s office with a complaint such as a sore throat or an ear infection, most likely due to a viral infection, the doctor has a few choices:

  1. The doctor can inform the patient that antibiotics would be ineffective, and that the infection will go away by itself in a few days, and that the patient go home, rest and take other remedies to target symptoms such as pain, fever, or congestion in the meantime.
  2. The doctor can succumb to pressure from the patient demanding a prescription ‘remedy’ and prescribe an unnecessary and useless course of antibiotics. While this was common in the past, in many countries doctors now stand firm, maintaining antibiotics would be ineffective and are not required.
  3. The doctor can offer a delayed antibiotic prescription – sending the patient away with a prescription but advising the patient to wait for a couple of days to see if symptoms resolve before deciding if the prescription is required. This approach is becoming more common and does reduce unnecessary antibiotic use.
  4. Finally, the doctor can determine that even if the original illness was caused by a virus, there is now a secondary bacterial infection and that a course of antibiotics is now required. The problem here is that without a laboratory test the doctor cannot be sure which bacterium is causing the disease so in order to be sure that the antibiotic will be effective, a broad spectrum antibiotic is often prescribed.

Any antibiotic prescription that the patient collects from the chemist (pharmacist) and starts taking, immediately causes collateral damage to their own resident microbiota. It is now well-established that a short course of antibiotics disrupts the gut bacterial community, killing many important resident bacteria. This can be observed by a reduction in diversity (see articles here and here, and figure here), meaning that fewer different bacterial groups can be detected. Normally once the patient stops taking the antibiotic the diversity of the community increases within a month, almost returning to the starting composition. Almost. Some bacterial species are particularly sensitive to certain antibiotics and may never recover. Oxalobacter formigenes, the bacterium that protects against kidney stone formation, is one example.

The other hidden effect of antibiotic treatment is that although all members of the microbial community may re-establish, they may not be the same as before. The levels of antibiotic resistance amongst bacteria isolated from samples from patients after seven days of antibiotic treatment were much higher than those from controls without any treatment, even four years later (see here). The selection pressure exerted on bacteria during short courses of antibiotic treatment results in transfer of antibiotic resistance genes, and the spread of resistance to many other members of the microbial community, increasing the overall resistance profile. Whilst this may not be immediately damaging to the health of the person, this change in baseline resistance does mean that a subsequent course of antibiotic treatment could be less successful because more bacteria will be able to withstand being affected by the antibiotic, and more bacteria will contain resistance genes that could be transferred to disease-causing bacterium.

Historically, as soon as we started using purified antimicrobials therapeutically, we started seeing rise of resistance to those antibiotics. The first recognised tetracycline resistance gene, otrA, was identified in Streptomyces, a genus of Gram-positive bacteria now known to produce many antimicrobial agents as secondary metabolites (see figure here).

The indiscriminate effects of antibiotics can be even more severe in hospitalised patients. Recurring Clostridioides difficile-associated diarrhoea (CDAD) is a direct consequence of antibiotic treatment. The microbial diversity decreases in patients receiving antibiotics for legitimate therapeutic reasons, and the Clostridioides difficile population expands to occupy empty niches. Overgrowth of C. difficile results in toxin production, abdominal pain, fever and ultimately CDAD. Treatment is difficult because some C. difficile strains are antibiotic resistant and C. difficile forms non-growing spores that persist during the antibiotic treatment. This means that even if the initial infection is successfully treated, once the antibiotic treatment ceases the spores can germinate and cause recurring C. difficile infections. Although initial treatment with antibiotics works for 75% of patients, the remaining 25% end up with recurring CDAD infections. A more effective treatment may be faecal microbial transplant (FMT) therapy (see blog post here).

Scientists have spent the last 20 years investigating the many ‘good microbes’ that inhabit our intestinal tracts leading to a much greater understanding of what they do, and the potential repercussions when we destroy them. This means we are now very aware of the collateral damage a course of antibiotics can have. A new era of developing the ‘good microbes’ themselves as therapeutic agents, using them to treat disease, or to recolonise damaged intestinal ecosystems, beckons. New drugs may take the form of next generation probiotics or whole microbial community faecal transplants, or even postbiotics, but the common feature is that they are derived from the abundance of our important natural gut inhabitants.


Probiotics, Prebiotics and Globobiotics!

By Prof. Colin Hill, PhD, APC Microbiome Ireland, University College Cork, Ireland

Growing up I could not imagine what the world would look like in 2020, but I was convinced it would be amazing. The future was exciting, new planets and solar systems would be explored, diseases would be cured, and everyone would have sufficient food and shelter.  I sometimes think my generation may have been born at the most perfect time in human history (for someone brought up in a first world country at any rate).  We avoided the major world wars which our parents and grandparents endured, we had the benefits of cheap airfares so we could travel the world as tourists, not as armies. Oil was cheap and plentiful. Access to education was widely available. We benefited from antibiotics while they were still effective.  Gender inequalities and racism began to be addressed, even though there is still a long way to go. Computers became commonplace and the internet provided access to almost unlimited sources of information.

But here we are in 2020, and now things do not look so promising. Perhaps cynicism is a natural by-product of getting older, but now the future seems to be presented in apocalyptic terms. Climate change, antibiotic resistance, ageing populations, the paradoxes of increasing obesity and increasing hunger, exploding populations, depletion of natural resources and pollution of our oceans. Watching nature programmes hosted by the incomparable David Attenborough has changed from generating a sense of awe at the wonders of the natural world to a sense of despair as to what we are doing to it. Australia is literally on fire as I write this!  Can our planet survive the onslaught of the projected 10 billion humans by 2050 – each one hungry for a share of finite resources?  Is this really going to be the legacy from my generation to the next – a dystopian future without hope and optimism?

But it’s a New Year and a new decade, and I really want to be hopeful. I am encouraged by the fact that we are gradually beginning to come to grips with this new reality. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a roadmap guiding societies and individuals as to how to make a contribution. Attitudes are changing.  Too slowly for sure, but we do seem to be at a tipping point.

But what has this tirade have to do with prebiotics and probiotics, you may ask? Well, everything of course. One of the things that really gives me hope is our growing understanding of how humans are simply occupying space in a microbial world. If we squander our opportunity and destroy our planet in terms of human habitation, microbes will carry on for billions of years to come. We should remember that we can only live on Earth because all of the oxygen we breathe is the result of billions of years of microbial metabolism, that most of the carbon cycling on earth is due to microbes, and that every natural system on Earth depends on microbes. Of course we are also inhabited by a vast ecosystem of microbes (our microbiomes) that are required for our health and wellbeing, and we live in environments shaped by microbes. Understanding this will help us to live in harmony with our microbial world, rather than constantly forcing our poor planet to deliver our short term needs.

How can microbes help us to achieve sustainability and restore a healthy ecosystem? I believe that there are many opportunities. By 2050 I predict that we will be using microbes to restore productivity to land damaged by excessive use and pollution.  We will be using microbes to clean our oceans of plastic waste. We will improve food production without using chemicals, and we will have certainly reduced food waste (it is estimated that one third of all the food we produce on earth is lost to spoilage, much of it caused by microbes). We will have reduced methane emissions by manipulating the rumen microbiome in domesticated ruminants. We can look forward to a world where we can work with microbes to restore and replenish our atmosphere by unlocking the enormous potential of microbes to scavenge and store carbon. We will have reduced our reliance on antibiotics and will have found microbiome-friendly solutions to prevent and treat infection. We will have developed probiotics and prebiotics that will help us to address metabolic diseases, we will be using bacteriophage to sculpt microbiomes, while psychobiotics will be helping to prevent age related loss of brain function.

Given that the world is a microbial ecosystem, I propose that in the same way we can treat our human ecosystems with prebiotics and probiotics to improve or restore health, we can think in terms of developing microbial solutions to improve or restore planetary health. Because we haven’t had one in at least a month, I propose yet another new term; globobiotics. Globobiotics would be defined as “live microorganisms, microbial products or substrates selectively utilized by microorganisms, that are used in a manner that contributes to the sustainability of our planet”.

We’ve had the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Oil Age, the Atomic Age and the Information Age, welcome to the Microbial Age!

Prebiotics do better than low FODMAPs diet

By Francisco Guarner MD PhD, Consultant of Gastroenterology, Digestive System Research Unit, University Hospital Vall d’Hebron, Barcelona, Spain

Bloating and visible abdominal distention after meals is a frequent complaint of people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, but even generally healthy people sometimes have these complaints. These symptoms are thought to be due to fermentation of food that escapes our digestive processes. Some sugars and oligosaccharides end up at the far end of our small bowel and cecum, where they become food for our resident microbes.

To manage this problem, medical organizations recommend antibiotics to suppress the microbial growth in our small intestine (known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or SIBO) or avoidance of foods that contain fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, called a low “FODMAP” diet. These approaches are generally successful in reducing symptoms, but do not provide permanent relief: symptoms typically return after the strategies are stopped.

Even worse, both approaches are known to disrupt the entire gut microbial ecosystem (not only at small bowel and cecum). Whereas a healthy microbial gut ecosystem has many different types of bacteria, antibiotics deplete them.  The low FODMAP diet deprives beneficial bacteria (such as Faecalibacterium, Roseburia, Bifidobacterium, Akkermansia, Lactobacillus and others) of the food they like to eat, and these species wane (see here).

Prof. Glenn Gibson, a founding father of prebiotic and synbiotic science, suggested that increasing ingestion of certain prebiotics could increase levels of bifidobacteria. These bifidobacteria in turn could prevent excessive gas production since they are not able to produce gas when fermenting sugars.  (Instead, bifidobacteria product short chain fatty acids, mainly lactate, which are subsequently converted to butyrate by other healthy types of bacteria, such as Faecalibacterium and Roseburia.)

Prof. Gibson’s hypothesis was tested in pilot studies where volunteers ingested a prebiotic known as galacto-oligosaccharide (Brand name: Bimuno). Healthy subjects were given 2.8 g/day of Bimuno for 3 weeks. At first, they had more gas: significantly higher number of daily anal gas evacuations than they had before taking the prebiotic (see here). The volume of gas evacuated after a test meal was also higher. However, after 3 weeks of taking the prebiotic, daily evacuations and volume of gas evacuated after the test meal returned to baseline. The microbe populations also started to recover. The relative abundance of healthy butyrate producers in fecal samples increased and correlated inversely with the volume of gas evacuated. This suggested that the prebiotic induced an adaptation of microbial metabolism, resulting in less gas.

Then researchers launched a second study, also in healthy volunteers, to look at how the metabolic activity of the microbiota changed after taking this prebiotic. They showed that adaptation to this prebiotic involves a shift in microbiota metabolism toward low-gas producing pathways (see here).

A third controlled study (randomized, parallel, double-blind), this time in patients with functional gastrointestinal disorders with flatulence, compared the effects of the prebiotic supplement (2.8 g/d Bimuno) plus a placebo diet (mediterranean-type diet) to a placebo supplement plus a diet low in FODMAPs. The study subjects were divided between these 2 diets, which they consumed for 4 weeks (see here). Both groups had statistically significant reductions in symptom scores during the 4-week intervention. Once subjects stopped taking the prebiotic, they still showed improved symptoms for 2 additional weeks (at this point, the study was completed). However, for subjects on the low-FODMAP diet, once the diet was stopped, symptoms reappeared. Very interestingly, these 2 diets had opposite effects on fecal microbiota composition. Bifidobacterium increased in the prebiotic group and decreased in the low-FODMAP group, whereas Bilophila wadsworthia (a sulfide producing species) decreased in the prebiotic group and increased in the low-FODMAP group.

The bottom line conclusion is that a diet including intermittent prebiotic administration might be an alternative to the low FODMAP diets that are currently recommended for people with functional gut symptoms, such as bloating and abdominal distention. Since low FOD MAP diets are low in fiber, the prebiotic option may provide a healthier dietary option.


  1. Halmos EP, Christophersen CT, Bird AR, Shepherd SJ, Gibson PR, Muir JG. Diets that differ in their FODMAP content alter the colonic luminal microenvironment. Gut. 2015;64(1):93–100.
  2. Mego M, Manichanh C, Accarino A, Campos D, Pozuelo M, Varela E, et al. Metabolic adaptation of colonic microbiota to galactooligosaccharides: a proof-of-concept-study. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2017;45(5):670–80.
  3. Mego M, Accarino A, Tzortzis G, Vulevic J, Gibson G, Guarner F, et al. Colonic gas homeostasis: Mechanisms of adaptation following HOST-G904 galactooligosaccharide use in humans. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2017;29(9):e13080.
  4. Huaman J-W, Mego M, Manichanh C, Cañellas N, Cañueto D, Segurola H, et al. Effects of Prebiotics vs a Diet Low in FODMAPs in Patients With Functional Gut Disorders. Gastroenterology. 2018;155(4):1004-7.


Additional reading:

Halmos EP, Christophersen CT, Bird AR, Shepherd SJ, Gibson PR, Muir JG. Diets that differ in their FODMAP content alter the colonic luminal microenvironment. Gut. 2015;64(1):93–100.

Mego M, Manichanh C, Accarino A, Campos D, Pozuelo M, Varela E, et al. Metabolic adaptation of colonic microbiota to galactooligosaccharides: a proof-of-concept-study. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2017;45(5):670–80.

Mego M, Accarino A, Tzortzis G, Vulevic J, Gibson G, Guarner F, et al. Colonic gas homeostasis: Mechanisms of adaptation following HOST-G904 galactooligosaccharide use in humans. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2017;29(9):e13080.

Huaman J-W, Mego M, Manichanh C, Cañellas N, Cañueto D, Segurola H, et al. Effects of Prebiotics vs a Diet Low in FODMAPs in Patients With Functional Gut Disorders. Gastroenterology. 2018;155(4):1004-7.

Halmos EP, Gibson PR. Controversies and reality of the FODMAP diet for patients with irritable bowel syndrome. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2019 Jul;34(7):1134-1142. doi: 10.1111/jgh.14650. Epub 2019 Apr 4.



“A healthy woman, a healthy baby, a healthy generation” lessons learned from the 4th Annual Women and their Microbes Conference

By Dr. Mariya Petrova, Microbiome insights and Probiotics Consultancy, Bulgaria

The 4th annual Women and their Microbes conference took place at the beginning of March celebrating the International Women’s day. The first-ever conference outside Europe in Hamilton, Canada brought together top scientists to discuss the importance of women’s health through the prism of women’s specific microbiomes. The theme of the conference was Microbiome Management in Pregnancy with a uniquely designed high-quality program translating the latest research into the clinical setting. I was honored to serve on the organizing committee for this meeting, and I provide highlights below.

Our health starts long before birth. The developing fetus receives information from the mother in the form of hormones and nutrients and uses these to predict the external environment. The fetus then uses this information to adapt its development to better its chances of survival after birth. However, the developing fetus can be “misinformed.” This happens through the maternal factors such as her use of drugs, stress, and diseases such as obesity and asthma. For example, both absolute maternal weight and weight gain during pregnancy affect microbiota development in infants (Carmen Collado et al., 2010). Maternal microbiota can also shape the immune system of the newborns. Therefore, keeping women on the right course before pregnancy and healthy during pregnancy must be a priority. This will later be translated into a healthier life for the infant through adulthood. Many of us associate healthy pregnancy with women taking the right nutrients and minerals such as folic acid, B12 vitamins, and iron and we are not wrong. But microbes also play an essential role in health. Microbes are a crucial factor providing nutrients, immune protection and regulating host physiology. Particular strains of Lactobacillus sp. and Bifidobacteria sp. can produce vitamin B12 and folic acid in the gut (Magnusdottir et al., 2015), which may be very beneficial during pregnancy. Of interest, this production increases when paired with prebiotics. Not only that, but microbes are increasingly recognized as important in reproduction, pregnancy, and development. Fertilization doesn’t happen in a sterile environment. Distinct bacterial communities are present in the female reproductive tract, but semen health and male fertility are also important (Weng et al., 2014). So don’t forget the “Y” in the equation – fathers also play a role in the health of their offspring. Gestational tissue microbes can also play an important role in development. More research is needed to better understand these microbiomes and the extent to which they can be influenced by maternal diet and health state.

What if the things go wrong – adverse pregnancy outcomes. Preterm birth is an ongoing challenge with rates steadily growing and with limited approaches for prevention. It results in 75% of neonatal morbidity and mortality. High numbers (55-80 %) of preterm births are associated with dysbiosis and a shift of the vaginal microbiota towards a more diverse state (Freitas et al., 2018). It seems likely that the vaginal microbiome can protect against adverse pregnancy outcomes. However, it appears that both antibiotics and probiotic therapy used to date are not effective at preventing preterm birth. “How to prevent adverse pregnancy outcomes?” is a million dollar question. We need a highly discriminatory diagnostic test that defines versions of ‘abnormal’ vaginal microbiomes. This test needs to be significantly associated with adverse health outcomes. The type of abnormal profile that results in preterm birth needs to be distinguishable from other possible ‘abnormal’ profiles. Such a diagnostic tool needs to be simple enough for a clinical environment and cost-effective. We need to have a safe intervention that can ‘treat’ or normalize a microbiome ideally preconception or early pregnancy.

Where do probiotics fit? Probiotics and prebiotics can enhance the nutrient status of the mother via increasing micronutrient and mineral absorption. During pregnancy, about 3.6% of North American women, 14% of The Netherlands women and 23% of Australian women consume probiotics. A lot of studies focus on the role of probiotics for preventing Group B Streptococcus infections, maternal obesities, postpartum depression, and mastitis. Although results are promising, more studies are needed to make clear conclusions and select the best strains for each condition. Importantly, currently used probiotics do not appear to pose safety concerns for pregnant and lactating women. Nevertheless, consumers’ knowledge regarding probiotics is not very precise. This confusion often may stem from a probiotic market with many different manufacturers, some of which are not legitimate, selling products that are not well defined, with very little clinical evidence. A major effort in educating clinicians, pharmacists and the consumers has been made by creating probiotic guidelines. Dragana Skokovic Sunjic has been working in the last ten years in publishing and updating the “probiotic chart.” The probiotic chart summarizes commercially available probiotic supplements or foods sold in Canada or the USA that have published clinical evidence for the particular strain(s) present in each product. Of note, for products containing multiple strains, evidence must be provided for the specified combination and not extrapolated from the evidence for the separate probiotic strains. At present these guidelines are used by primary care providers, specialists (pediatrics, GI), academic teaching hospitals, universities and others.

With the increasing number of microbiome studies, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the scientific literature with more people focusing on the importance of microbes in human health. Women’s health is a cornerstone for successful reproduction, with important implications for the health of the next generation. Initiatives such as Women and their Microbes are crucial to link the science and medicine together to bring awareness within the healthcare and academic community.

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.


Recommended daily allowance (RDA) for microbes?

By Prof. Colin Hill, Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, Food for Health Ireland, University College Cork

In this months’ issue of The Biochemist (August 2018) I explored the concept of whether or not there could be a health benefit to ingesting large numbers of safe microbes in our diet (see the open access article here).  This was an effort, though I should stress not a scientifically rigorous effort, to consider the long history of encounters between humans and ingested microbes.

This opinion piece was prompted by a series of open questions which have often puzzled me.  Why is so much of our immune system focussed on the gut?  Why not simply let the microbes and food constituents pass through and get digested without such strict surveillance?  Surely it would be more metabolically favourable to only react to those microbes that breach our epithelial barriers?  Why does our enteric nervous system devote so much of its resources to the gut?  Why is there a generally beneficial effect of many probiotics across so many health conditions?  Why is mother’s milk designed to promote the growth of microbes?

Could the solution to all of these questions be down to a very simple answer? Because the gut ‘expects and requires’ constant encounters with microbes for full functionality. Given that humans evolved into a microbial world, and that we have consumed a diet rich in microbes for most of our evolutionary history, it makes sense that our enteric systems would be designed to appropriately deal with microbes of all types, selecting out those which can cause damage and destroying them, accommodating those which will become part of our microbiomes and letting the rest pass through.  Surely we are monitoring and controlling our ‘microbial’ organ in the same way that our eukaryotic organs are monitored and controlled.

Could it be that the rise in autoimmune diseases could be, at least in part, due to an immune system primed to expect more microbes than it currently sees?  Should we recommend that a daily dose of safe microbes should be included in dietary guidelines – in the form of more safe raw foods, more fermented foods and more probiotics? It must be emphasized that some serious pathogens must be controlled or eliminated from food – not ALL live microbes are safe. But the goal can be to process only when needed for safety reasons, so foods can be a source of the safe microbes they harbour.

Lots of questions, and not many answers.  But I for one am taking account of this concept in my daily diet and am deliberately eating more microbes – I’ll let you know how it goes!

East meets West at ISAPP’s first meeting in Asia

By Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD

The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) recently convened its first meeting held in Asia, with the modern hub of Singapore as a host city. The meeting featured a two-day open registration meeting, attended by nearly 250 scientists, health professionals, and industry representatives, and a third day of smaller discussion groups by invitation. The meeting provided a rare opportunity for non-members to attend. It provided a dynamic forum for sharing different clinical experiences and regulatory nuances amongst the continents, as well as allowing attendees to better appreciate the research being performed in the Asian region.

Here are a few speaker highlights:


Mimi Tang MD

Tang presented the results of a double-blind, randomized controlled trial examining the effect of probiotic supplementation combined with oral immunotherapy (OIT) to decrease the risk of peanut allergy in children. Peanut allergy is one of the fastest growing food allergies in children. In the Probiotic and Peanut Oral ImmunoTherapy [PPOIT] study, children randomized to the intervention group had increased rates of sustained responsiveness to peanut several weeks after discontinuation of the treatment. Tang discussed the implications of the study, as well as current, larger clinical trials that are building upon these findings.


Dr. Bruno Pot

The Lactobacillus genus is taxonomically abnormally heterogeneous. Currently, the 231 Lactobacillus species range from a genome size of 1.23 – 4.91 megabases, have a GC content of 32-57% and an average nucleotide identity that is typical for a family or worse. Such ranges are far beyond what is acceptable for a bacterial genus. Experts are recommending that the current genus should be split into 12 new genera. Some well-known lactobacilli would be re-named, which may have important repercussions commercially and legally.


Profs. Colin Hill and Patrice Cani

Hill described how lactase in yogurt cultures improves lactose digestion; he emphasized how mechanisms that drive probiotic activity are complex. Some scientists are searching for a single molecule that drives probiotic health benefits—but it is unlikely to be found.

Hill noted even inactivated (non-living) microbes may have health effects—for example, a study showed that a dead Lactobacillus strain reduced anxious behavior, reduced cortisol levels, and impacted the microbiome in a mouse model. Work by Prof. Patrice Cani showed that heat-killed Akkermansia muciniphila were sufficient to ameliorate obesity and diabetes in mice. Does this suggest that we will need to start quantifying probiotics based on biomass as well as CFU?


Profs. Hani El-Nezami, Gregor Reid and Akihito Endo

These three speakers illustrated the important impact of environmental toxins (extremely potent aflatoxins, pesticides, and heavy metals) on humans and wildlife. They showed how certain probiotic strains can decrease aflatoxin absorption and even degrade them; sequester heavy metals and pesticides to reduce their uptake; and enhance resistance to honey bee colony collapse disorder that threatens the world’s food supply.


Prof. Wim Teughels

To date, 11 studies have been published on probiotics with a low ‘number needed to treat’ for prevention of dental caries in infants, toddlers, and adults. One study showed the benefits of administered L. reuteri, following children for nine years after they were treated as infants before any teeth had emerged. Also, data exist for probiotics influencing other oral health endpoints, including periodontal infections, oral candida infections, and halitosis.


The discussion groups on day three of the conference addressed a range of topics:

  • Possibilities to harmonize global probiotic and prebiotic regulations—Chaired by Seppo Salminen (Finland), Yuan Kun Lee (Singapore), and Gabriel Vinderola (Argentina)
  • Fermented foods for health: East meets West—Chaired by Bob Hutkins (USA), Paul Cotter (Ireland), and Liu Shao Quan (Singapore)
  • Potential value of probiotics and prebiotics to treat or prevent serious medical issues in developing countries—Chaired by Daniel Merenstein (USA), Reuben Wong (Singapore), and Colin Hill (Ireland)
  • Prebiotics as ingredients: How foods, fibres and delivery methods influence functionality—Chaired by Glenn Gibson (England) and Karen Scott (Scotland)


These workshops often produce peer-reviewed publications based on the discussion outcomes, so stay tuned for these developments. (See here for a list of ISAPP publications.)

The full meeting report is being developed and will be posted on the ISAPP website shortly.

The 2019 meeting will return to ISAPP’s normal format, hosted by Dr. Sarah Lebeer in Antwerp, Belgium.


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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.