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A roundup of the ISAPP consensus definitions: probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics and fermented foods

By Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, ISAPP Executive Science Officer

ISAPP has long recognized the importance of precise definitions of the ‘biotic’ family of terms. As a scientific organization working to advance global knowledge about probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics and fermented foods, we believe carrying out rigorous scientific studies—and comparing one result to another—is more difficult if we do not start with a clear definition of what we are studying.

Over the past 8 years, ISAPP has endeavored to bring clarity to these definitions for scientists and other stakeholders. ISAPP board members have met with other top experts representing multiple perspectives and specialties in the field to develop precise, useful and appropriate definitions of the terms probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics and fermented foods. The definitions of these first four terms have all entailed the requirement that the substance be shown to confer a health benefit in the target host. Fermented foods have multitudes of sensorial, nutritional and technological benefits, which drive their utility. A health benefit is not required.

The problem with health benefits

The definitions provide significant advantages for the scientific community in terms of clarity but complexity arises when the same definitions are accepted by regulatory agencies. This requirement for a health benefit as part of the probiotic definition has been rigorously implemented in the European Union. Currently, with the exception of a few member states, the term probiotic is prohibited. The logic is that since a health benefit is inherent to the term probiotic and since there are no approved health claims for probiotics in the EU*, the term ‘probiotic’ is seen to be acting as a proxy for a health claim. This has frustrated probiotic product companies who believe they have met the scientific criteria for probiotics, yet cannot identify their product as a probiotic in the marketplace because they have not received endorsement of their claims by the EU. This is not an issue resulting from an unclear definition, since probiotics surely should provide a health benefit, but rather from a lack of agreement as to what level of evidence is sufficient to substantiate a health benefit.

ISAPP remains committed to the importance of requiring a health benefit for the ‘biotic’ family of terms (outlined in the table below). It’s clear that all of these definitions are meaningless unless the requirement that they confer a health benefit is considered as essential by all stakeholders. One could reasonably discuss whether the required levels of evidence for foods and supplements are too high in some regulatory jurisdictions, but the value of these substances collapses in the absence of a health benefit.

Summary of ISAPP consensus definitions

With the publication of the most recent ISAPP consensus paper, this one on postbiotics, I offer a summary below of the five consensus definitions published by ISAPP. Each definition is part of a comprehensive paper resulting from focused discussions among experts in the field and published in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology (NRGH). These papers are among the top most viewed of all time on the NRGH website and are increasingly cited by scientists and regulators.

Table. Summary of ISAPP Consensus Definitions of the ‘Biotics’ Family of Substances. Probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics and postbiotics have in common the requirement for a health benefit. They may apply to any target host, any regulatory category and must be safe for their intended use. Fermented foods fall only under the foods category and no health benefit is required.

Definition Key features of the definition Reference
Probiotics Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host Grammatical correction of the 2001 FAO/WHO definition.

No mechanism is stipulated by the definition.

 

Hill et al. 2014
Prebiotics A substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit Prebiotics are distinct from fiber. Beneficial impact on resident microbiota and demonstration of health benefit required in same study. Gibson et al. 2017
Synbiotics A mixture comprising live microorganisms and substrate(s) selectively utilized by host microorganisms that confers a health benefit on the host Two types of synbiotics defined: complementary and synergistic. Complementary synbiotics comprise probiotic(s) plus prebiotic(s), meeting requirements for criteria for each. Synergistic synbiotics comprise substrate(s) selectively utilized by co-administered live microbe(s), but independently, the components do not have to meet criteria for prebiotic or probiotic. Swanson et al. 2020
Postbiotics Preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host Postbiotics are prepared from live microbes that undergo inactivation and the cells or cellular structures must be retained. Filtrates or isolated components from the growth of live microbes are not postbiotics. A probiotic that is killed is not automatically a postbiotic; the preparation must be shown to confer a health benefit, as well as meet all other criteria for a postbiotic. Salminen et al. 2021
Fermented Foods Foods made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components Fermented foods are not the same as probiotics. They are not required to have live microbes characterized to the strain level nor have evidence of a health benefit. Types of fermented foods are many and are specific to geographic regions. Compared to the raw foods they are made from, they may have improved taste, digestibility, safety, and nutritional value. Marco et al. 2021

 

 

*Actually, there is one approved health claim in the EU for a probiotic: Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to live yoghurt cultures and improved lactose digestion (ID 1143, 2976) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006

 

Further reading: Defining emerging ‘biotics’

Behind the publication: Understanding ISAPP’s new scientific consensus definition of postbiotics

A key characteristic of a probiotic is that it remains alive at the time of consumption. Yet scientists have known for decades that some non-living microorganisms can also have benefits for health: various studies (reviewed in Ouwehand & Salminen, 1998) have compared the health effects of viable and non-viable bacteria, and some recent investigations have tested the health benefits of pasteurized bacteria (Depommier et al., 2019).

Since non-viable microorganisms are often more stable and convenient to include in consumer products, interest in these ‘postbiotic’ ingredients has increased over the past several years. But before now, the scientific community had not yet united around a definition, nor had it precisely delineated what falls into this category.

An international group of scientists from the disciplines of probiotics and postbiotics, food technology, adult and pediatric gastroenterology, pediatrics, metabolomics, regulatory affairs, microbiology, functional genomics, cellular physiology and immunology met in 2019 to discuss the concept of postbiotics. This meeting led to a recently published consensus paper, including this definition: “a preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host”.

Thus, a postbiotic must include some non-living microbial biomass, whether it be whole microbial cells or cell components.

Below is a Q&A with four of the paper’s seven ISAPP-linked authors, who highlight important points about the definition and explain how it will lay the groundwork for better scientific understanding of non-viable microbes and health in the years ahead.

Why was the concept of postbiotics needed?

Prof. Seppo Salminen, University of Turku, Finland:

We have known for a long time that inactivated microorganisms, not just live ones, may have health effects but the field had not coalesced around a term to use to describe such products or the key criteria applicable to them. So we felt we needed to assemble key experts in the field and provide clear definitions and criteria.

Further, novel microbes (that is, new species hitherto not used in foods) in foods and feeds are being introduced as live or dead preparations. The paper highlights regulatory challenges and for safety and health effect assessment for dead preparations of microbes.

Can bacterial metabolites be postbiotics?

Prof. Gabriel Vinderola, National University of Litoral, Argentina:

Postbiotics can include metabolites – for example, fermented products with metabolites and microbial cells or their components, but pure metabolites are not postbiotics.

Can you expand on what is not included in the category of postbiotics?

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, ISAPP Executive Science Officer, USA:

The term ‘postbiotic’ today is sometimes applied to components derived from microbial growth that are purified, so no cell or cell products remain. The panel made the decision that such purified, microbe-derived substances (e.g. butyrate) should be called by their chemical names and that there was no need for a single encompassing term for them. Some people may be surprised by this. But microbe-derived substances include a whole host of purified pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals, and these are not appropriately within the scope of ‘postbiotics’.

For something to be a postbiotic, what kinds of microorganisms can it originate from?

Prof. Gabriel Vinderola, National University of Litoral, Argentina:

A postbiotic must derive from a living microorganism on which a technological process is applied for life termination (heat, high pressure, oxygen exposure for strict anaerobes, etc). Viruses, including bacteriophages, are not considered living microorganisms, so postbiotics cannot be derived from them.

Safety and benefits must be demonstrated for its non-viable form. A postbiotic does not have to be derived from a probiotic (see here for a list of criteria required for a probiotic). So the microbe used to derive a postbiotic does not need to demonstrate a health benefit while alive. Further, a probiotic product that loses cell viability during storage does not automatically qualify as a postbiotic; studies on the health benefit of the inactivated probiotic are still required.

Vaccines or substantially purified components and products (for example, proteins, peptides, exopolysaccharides, SCFAs, filtrates without cell components and chemically synthesized compounds) would not qualify as postbiotics in their own right, although some might be present in postbiotic preparations.

What was the most challenging part of creating this definition?

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, ISAPP Executive Science Officer, USA:

The panel didn’t want to use the term ‘inactive’ to describe a postbiotic, because clearly even though they are dead, they retain biological activity. There was a lot of discussion about the word ‘inanimate’, as it’s not so easy to translate. But the panel eventually decided it was the best option.

 Does this definition encompass all postbiotic products, no matter whether they are taken as dietary supplements or drugs?

Prof. Hania Szajewska, Medical University of Warsaw, Poland:

Indeed. However, as of today, postbiotics are found primarily in foods and dietary supplements.

Where can you currently find postbiotics in consumer products, and what are their health effects?

Prof. Hania Szajewska, Medical University of Warsaw, Poland:

One example is specific fermented infant formulas with postbiotics which have been commercially available in some countries such as Japan and in Europe, South America, and the Middle East for years. The postbiotics in fermented formulas are generally derived from fermentation of a milk matrix by Bifidobacterium, Streptococcus, and/or Lactobacillus strains.

Potential clinical effects of postbiotics include prevention of common infectious diseases such as upper respiratory tract infections and acute gastroenteritis. Moreover, fermented formulas have the potential to improve some digestive symptoms or discomfort (e.g. colic in infants). In addition, there is some rationale for immunomodulating, anti-inflammatory effects which may potentially translate into other clinical benefits, such as improving allergy symptoms. Still, while these effects are likely, more well-designed, carefully conducted trials are needed.

What do we know about postbiotic safety?

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, ISAPP Executive Science Officer, USA:

Living microbes have the potential, especially in people with compromised health, to cause an infection. But because the microbes in postbiotics are not alive, they cannot cause infections. This risk factor, then, is removed from these preparations. Of course, the safety of postbiotics for their intended use must be demonstrated, but infectivity should not be a concern.

What are the take-home points about the postbiotics definition?

Prof. Seppo Salminen, University of Turku, Finland:

Postbiotics, which encompass inanimate microbes with or without metabolites, can be characterized, are likely to be more stable than live counterparts and are less likely to be a safety concern, since dead bacteria and yeast are not infective.

Read the postbiotic definition paper here.

See the press release about this paper here.

View an infographic on the postbiotic definition here.

What’s the evidence on ‘biotics’ for health? A summary from five ISAPP board members

Evidence on the health benefits of gut-targeted ‘biotics’ – probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, and postbiotics – has greatly increased over the past two decades, but it can be difficult to sort through the thousands of studies that exist today to learn which of these ingredients are appropriate in which situations. At a recent World of Microbiome virtual conference, ISAPP board members participated in a panel that provided an overview of what we currently know about the health benefits of ‘biotics’ and how they are best used.

Here’s a summary of what the board members had to say:

Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders: Probiotics and fermented foods

  • Probiotics are “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”.
  • Unfortunately, published assessments of probiotic products available on the market show that these products often fall short of required evidence. For example, their labels may not adequately describe the contents (including genus / species / strain in the product); they may not guarantee the efficacious dose through the end of the shelf life.
  • Contrary to common belief, probiotics do not need to colonize in the target site (e.g. the gut), impact gut microbiota composition, be derived from humans, or be resistant to stomach acid and other gut secretions such as bile.
  • Fermented foods are those made “through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components”. The recent increased interest in fermented foods may come from people’s increased awareness of the role of gut microbes in overall health, but it is important to note that we have little direct evidence that the transient effects of fermented food microbes on the gut microbiota actually lead to health benefits. With that said, observational studies suggest that consuming some traditional fermented foods is associated with improved health outcomes.

Prof. Dan Merenstein, MD: Probiotics – How do I know what to prescribe for adult health?

  • A (limited) survey showed that most dietary supplement probiotic products cannot be linked to evidence because they do not provide enough information to determine what evidence exists to support their use – especially strains in the product. However, there are some probiotic products that have robust evidence.
  • Should every adult take a probiotic? The best evidence supports probiotics for improved lactose digestion and for prevention of difficile infection. Probiotics have also been shown to prevent common illnesses; reduce the duration of gut symptoms; and perhaps even reduce antibiotic consumption.
  • Studies will reveal more about the microbiome and about how probiotics work, for whom and for what indications. As with diet, the answer will most likely not be same for each person.

Prof. Glenn Gibson: Prebiotics and Synbiotics

  • A prebiotic is “a substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit”. Researchers can test these substances’ activity in various ways: batch cultures, micro batch cultures, metabolite analysis, molecular microbiology methods, CF gut models, with in vivo (e.g. human) studies being required. Prebiotics appear to have particular utility in elderly populations, and may be helpful in repressing infections, inflammation and allergies. They have also been researched in clinical states such as IBS, IBD, autism and obesity related issues (Gibson et al., 2017).
  • A synbiotic is “a mixture, comprising live microorganisms and substrate(s) selectively utilized by host microorganisms, that confers a health benefit on the host.” While more studies are needed to say precisely which are useful in which situations, synbiotics have shown promise for several aspects of health in adults (Swanson et al. 2020): surgical infections and complications, metabolic disorders (including T2DM and glycaemia), irritable bowel syndrome, Helicobacter pylori infection and atopic dermatitis.

Prof. Hania Szajewska, MD: Biotics for pediatric use

  • Beneficial effects of ‘biotics’ are possible in pediatrics, but each ‘biotic’ needs to be evaluated separately. High-quality research is essential.
  • It is important that we view the use of ‘biotics’ in the context of other things in a child’s life and other interventions.
  • Breast milk is the best option for feeding infants
  • If breastfeeding is not an option, infant formulae supplemented with probiotics and/or prebiotics and/or postbiotics are available on the market.
  • Pro-/pre-/synbiotic supplemented formulae evaluated so far seem safe with some favorable clinical effects possible, but the evidence is not robust enough overall to be able to recommend routine use of these formulae.
  • Evidence is convincing on probiotics for prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants.
  • Medical societies differ in their recommendations for probiotics to treat acute gastroenteritis in children – they appear beneficial but not essential.
  • Synbiotics are less studied, but early evidence indicates they may be useful for preventing sepsis in infants and preventing / treating allergy and atopic dermatitis in children.

Prof. Gabriel Vinderola: Postbiotics

  • The concept of non-viable microbes exerting a health benefit has been around for a while, but different terms were used for these ingredients. Creating a scientific consensus definition will improve communication with health professionals, industry, regulators, and the general public. It will allow clear criteria for what qualifies as a postbiotic, and allow better tracking of scientific papers for future systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
  • The ISAPP consensus definition (in press) of a postbiotic is: “A preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host”.
  • Postbiotics are stable, so no cold-chain is needed to deliver them to the consumer. Safety is of less concern because the microbes are not alive and thus cannot cause bacteraemia.
  • Research in the coming years will reveal more about postbiotics and the ways in which they can promote human health.

See here for the entire presentation on Biotics for Health.

Probiotics and fermented foods, by Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders (@1:15)

Postbiotics, by Prof. Gabriel Vinderola (@18:22)

Prebiotics and synbiotics, by Prof. Glenn Gibson (@33:24)

‘Biotics’ for pediatric use, by Prof. Hania Szajewska (@47:55 )

Probiotics: How do I know what to prescribe for adult health? by Prof. Dan Merenstein (@1:04:51)

Q&A (@1:20:00)

 

New publication co-authored by ISAPP board members gives an overview of probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, and postbiotics in infant formula

For meeting the nutritional needs of infants and supporting early development, human milk is the ideal food—and this is reflected in breastfeeding guidelines around the world, including the World Health Organization’s recommendation that babies receive human milk exclusively for the first six months of life and that breastfeeding be continued, along with complementary foods, up to two years of age or beyond. In certain cases, however, breastfeeding is challenging or may not even be an option. Then, parents rely on alternatives for feeding their infants.

A group of scientists, including three ISAPP board members, recently co-authored an article in the journal Nutrients entitled Infant Formula Supplemented with Biotics: Current Knowledge and Future Perspectives. In the review, they aimed to highlight the new technologies and ingredients that are allowing infant formula to better approximate the composition of human milk. They focused on four types of ingredients: probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, and postbiotics.

Co-author Gabriel Vinderola, Associate Professor of Microbiology at the Faculty of Chemical Engineering from the National University of Litoral and Principal Researcher from CONICET at Dairy Products Institute (CONICET-UNL) in Santa Fe, Argentina says, “Modern technologies have allowed the production of specific microbes, subtrates selectively used by the host microbes, and even non-viable microbes and their metabolites and cell fragments—for which scientific evidence is available on their effects on infant health, when administered in adequate amounts. Thus, this current set of gut modulators can be delivered by infant formula when breastfeeding is limited or when it is not an option.”

The authors say a well-functioning gut microbiota is essential for the overall health and proper development of the infant, and components of human milk support the development of this microbiota. They list important human milk components and the novel ingredients that aim to mimic the functions of these components in infant formulas:

  • Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs)

HMOs are specialized complex carbohydrates found in human milk, which are digested in the infant colon and serve as substrates for beneficial microbes, mainly bifidobacteria, residing there. In recent years, prebiotic mixtures of oligosaccharides (e.g. short-chain GOS and long-chain FOS) have been added to infant formula to recapitulate the effects of HMOs. But now that it’s possible to produce several types of HMOs synthetically, some infant formulas are enriched with purified HMOs: 2’-fucosyllactose (2’FL) or lacto-N-neotetraose (LNnT). Even 3′-galactosyllactose (3′-GL) can be naturally produced by a fermentation process in certain infant formulas.

  • Human milk microbiota

Human milk has a complex microbiota, which is an important source of beneficial bacteria to the infant. Studies support the notion that the human milk microbiota delivers bioactive components that support the development of the infant’s immune system. Probiotic strains are sometimes added to infant formula in order to substitute for important members of the milk microbiota.

  • Bacterial metabolites

Human milk also contains metabolic byproducts of bacteria called “metabolites” in addition to the bacteria themselves. These components have not been fully studied to date, but bacterial metabolites such as butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids may have important health effects for the overall development of the infant. A future area of nutritional research is likely to be the addition of ‘postbiotics’ — non-viable cells, their metabolites and cell components that, when administered in adequate amounts, promote health and well-being — to infant formulas. (ISAPP convened a scientific consensus panel on the definition of postbiotics, with publication of this definition expected by the end of 2020.)

 

The precise short- and long-term health benefits of adding the above ingredients to infant formula are still under study. One pediatric society (the ESPGHAN Committee on Nutrition) examined the data in 2011 and at that time did not recommend the routine use of infant formulas with added probiotic and/or prebiotic components until further trials were conducted. A systematic review concluded that evidence for the health benefits of fermented infant formula (compared with standard infant formula) are unclear, although improvements in infant gastrointestinal symptoms cannot be ruled out. Although infant formulas are undoubtedly improving, review co-author Hania Szajewska, MD, Professor of Paediatrics at The Medical University of Warsaw, Poland, says, “Matching human milk is challenging. Any alternative should not only match human milk composition, but should also match breastfeeding performance, including how it affects infant growth rate and other functions, such as the immune response.”