probiotics for healthy people infographic

ISAPP releases new infographic: “Probiotics for Healthy People”

November 20, 2017. Probiotics are most commonly studied with for populations with a specific condition—frequent examples include diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and pouchitis. But what kind of evidence exists on probiotics for healthy people?

A new ISAPP infographic gives an overview of what we know about the use of probiotics in healthy individuals. The resource was developed by ISAPP’s Science Translation Committee and approved by  the ISAPP board of directors.

“Studying health benefits in healthy people is a challenge. But there is evidence that probiotics can provide dietary management of some digestive conditions that don’t reach the level of diagnosed disease as well as prevent of some common infectious diseases and. These, and other benefits, are of value to healthy people,” says ISAPP’s Executive Science Officer, Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders. The new infographic  emphasizes it is not necessary to take probiotics to be in good health, but they may serve as a useful addition to a healthy lifestyle.

Research investigating how probiotics can affect healthy individuals through their microbiomes is ongoing in laboratories around the world, and ISAPP continues to track the latest findings.

stethoscope and keyboard

Interpreting Risk Reduction in Probiotic & Prebiotic Clinical Trials

November 2017. By Prof. Michael Cabana MPH MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Chief, Division of General Pediatrics, University of California San Francisco.

Over the last few decades there has been a rapid acceleration in the number of published studies and clinical trials focused on probiotic and prebiotic interventions.  One common result that is reported is the change in risk of a condition or outcome after taking a probiotic or prebiotic supplement.  News articles and broadcasts commonly highlight claims in clinical trials (e.g., “this trial suggests a 33% reduction in X…).  However, in a world where news is sometimes transmitted in 140 characters or less, much nuance from a proper clinical trial can be lost. When assessing claims of risk reduction, it is important to evaluate and interpret these results in their proper context.  Here are a few tips.

What type of risk reduction is being reported?

When assessing the claims from a clinical trial, determine whether the claim is being presented as a relative risk reduction or an absolute risk reduction.  Sometimes the report may describe the risk of the outcome or disease directly compared to the normal incidence of the disease (i.e., incidence seen in the control group). This is a report of an absolute risk reduction. For example, if the control group had a 15% frequency of disease X and the probiotic group had a 10% frequency of disease X, then the absolute risk reduction is 5% (15%-10%=5%). Sometimes the report may describe a relative risk reduction, which is the % change between the risk in the probiotic group compared to risk in the control group. If the control group had a 15% frequency of disease X and the probiotic group had a 10% frequency of disease X, then the probiotic reduced your relative risk by 33% ([15%-10%]/15% = 5%/15% = 33%).

Is the risk reduction clinically significant?

If you notice that a relative risk reduction is being reported as statistically significant, you then need to ask yourself if the outcome is clinically significant. It is possible that a very large change in the relative risk reduction may not be clinically important. For example, if a probiotic intervention decreases the relative risk of disease X by 33%., this percentage sounds very impressive. However, if the baseline risk of contracting disease X is only 0.06% (e.g., it is a very rare condition), then the risk after the probiotic intervention is only 0.04% (still very rare, as reflected in the absolute risk reduction of 0.02%). Although the decrease of 33% that is reported as relative risk seems large, if you take into account the baseline risk, you realize that this is not clinically significant. The risk of 0.06% and 0.04% are essentially the same.

When evaluating an intervention, the context of the disease makes a difference. How often is this disease or condition occurring in the population being studied? The problem with reporting a relative risk reduction is that it is easy to overlook how common or uncommon the disease is to begin with.

Look for the “Number Needed to Treat”

One way to better assess the impact of an intervention is to calculate a “Number-Needed-to Treat” (NNT).  The NNT is the inverse of the absolute risk reduction.

From our example above, a 33% relative risk reduction of a condition with a prevalence of 0.06% (e.g., a very rare condition), means that the probiotic intervention had an absolute risk reduction of 0.02%. The NNT would be equal to 1/[0.0002]= 5000. This NNT of 5000 means that you’d need to treat 5000 patients with the probiotic intervention to change the outcome of only one patient.

Take a different scenario. If the disease was much more common (e.g, 9% prevalence) and the relative risk reduction was still 33%, then absolute risk reduction would be 3%. The NNT in this case would be equal to 1/(0.03)=33.3. This NNT of 33.3 means that you’d need to treat only 33 patients with the probiotic intervention to change the outcome of one patient. This treatment is much more likely to be meaningful in the population.

The NNT is a quick way for clinicians to evaluate an intervention to take into account the risk reduction in the context of the baseline risk.


When examining the results from clinical trials, just looking at percentage changes can be deceiving. Unfortunately, relative risk reduction often results in more sensational headlines, so beware of how the press, and even top quality journals, report study results. When assessing the clinical trial results in the context of clinical care, keep in mind how common or rare the disease is. Even a large percentage change may not make a big difference overall in patient outcomes if the initial risk was very low to begin with. Evaluate and interpret clinical trial results in their proper context.

salminen and hutkins at YINI

Fermented Foods in Nutrition & Health

November 2017. Discussed at International Union of Nutritional Sciences (IUNS) Congress session. By Prof. Seppo Salminen, Director of the Functional Foods Forum, University of Turku.

Recently, the Yogurt in Nutrition Initiative (YINI) convened a scientific session as part of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences (IUNS) Congress, held in Buenos Aires from October 22-27, 2017. The session focused on how yogurt and other fermented foods affect the composition and activity of the gut microbiota and health. Lectures covered microbiota development in humans, metabolic effects of yogurt and fermented foods, the role of fermented dairy foods on health, and the role of yogurt and fermented foods in nutritional guidelines

Professor Robert Hutkins and I presented at the YINI session. Dr. Hutkins spoke about “Health benefits of fermented dairy foods: microbiota and beyond” and started by defining the role of microorganisms during food fermentations. He then reviewed current research findings on the impact of fermented foods on the human intestinal microbiota. He also distinguished between the microbes that perform the fermentation and those added specifically as probiotics. Although they are often closely related, they are not the same. Both culture-based and molecular methods have shown that although microbes consumed in fermented foods often survive transit, they rarely persist after consumption has ended. Still, they may be able to modulate functional activity in the gut and, in the case of yogurt bacteria, improve tolerance to lactose.

My presentation was titled “Improving your diet with fermented foods: harmonizing dietary guidelines including fermented milks” and I reviewed the role of yogurt in dietary guidelines and recommendations in different countries along with the regulatory status of yogurt and health claims. The talk focused on existing guidelines in Europe; specifically, the live bacteria in yogurt and lactose intolerance claim approved by the European Food Safety Authority. This claim states that yogurt cultures improve lactose digestion (and tolerance) in individuals with lactose maldigestion. Additionally, I suggested that fermented dairy products should be included in dietary guidelines in a more consistent manner, as recommendations currently vary from country to country. A special focus was also given to an Argentinian social program which provides at present over 200,000 school children with locally produced yogurt with a probiotic to improve their health and well-being.

The role of fermented foods and especially yogurt has gained substantial attention among researchers, clinicians, public health workers, and consumers. In addition to the live organisms present in fermented foods, peptides and other metabolites produced by these organisms may also mediate important health benefits. Thus, cultured dairy foods and other fermented products may have important effects on public health and their consumption should be encouraged.

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ISAPP Releases Series of Informational Videos on Probiotics and Health

October 10, 2017. Probiotics are a hot topic—an online search for information yields millions of hits. But how much of this easily-accessible information is scientifically accurate?

The clinicians and scientists serving on the ISAPP Board of Directors constantly receive questions about what’s true when it comes to probiotics and prebiotics. That’s why ISAPP decided to commission a series of four informational videos on probiotics. These videos were overseen by members of our board of directors without input from industry, but industry provided educational grants for their production.

The four new videos focus on these topics:

  • What is a probiotic?
  • Benefits of probiotics
  • Are all probiotics the same?
  • How to choose a probiotic

Watch for the videos to roll out during the month of October 2017! They’ll appear here on the ISAPP website video page.

With our mission to advance scientific excellence in probiotics and prebiotics, ISAPP is committed to helping consumers access science-based information on probiotics and prebiotics. To stay up to date on ISAPP news, please sign up for our monthly newsletter!

brain-gut relationship illustration

Bugs on the Brain: the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis

September 2017. By Eamonn M. M. Quigley, Chief Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Houston Methodist Hospital and Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, Houston, Texas, USA.

We can all remember those instances of diarrhea (or at least frequent bowel movements) and “butterflies” that we suffered before a critical test, interview or presentation. These are examples of stress originating from the brain influencing gut function. Extensive research over the past several decades has revealed that this is a two-way street – the gut constantly signals to the brain, too. This bidirectional channel of communication between the “big brain” in the cranium and the “little brain” (i.e. the enteric nervous system) in the gut came to be referred to as the gut-brain axis. This link relies on neurons of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, as well as circulating hormones and other neuromodulatory molecules.

We now understand that mental symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression have a clinical impact on the gut. These include situations where the brain, the gut and their channel of communication, the autonomic nervous system, are affected by the same pathologic process. Parkinson’s disease is a prime example. Indeed, a hypothesis has evolved to suggest that Parkinson’s disease actually originates in the gut and ascends to the brain. Other scenarios include those instances where neurologic symptoms are a consequence of a primarily gastrointestinal pathology. This occurs in malabsorption syndromes when nutrients such as folic acid and B12, which are critical to brain function, become deficient. Finally, and most commonly, are those situations such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) where it is widely believed that symptoms result from dysfunction or disturbance somewhere along the gut-brain axis. In some individuals the problem may lie primarily in the gut; in others the main issues may be a distorted representation of gut stimuli in the brain.

Recently the concept of the gut-brain axis has been extended to include the microbiota (the microbiota-gut-brain axis) and tantalizing evidence suggests that bacteria resident in the gut could have an impact on the “big brain”. Indeed, some researchers have raced ahead to suggest that assessing alterations in the microbiome could assist in the diagnosis of a host of neurological disorders and that therapies targeted at the microbiome could play a central role in disorders as diverse as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, autism, stroke, depression and drug addiction.

We should remember that the microbiota-gut-brain axis is far from a novel concept as it was clearly described over 60 years ago with research on hepatic coma. Metabolic products of gut bacteria lead to this much feared complication of advanced liver disease and an intervention targeted at the microbiome, namely, the administration of antibiotics, was shown to be dramatically effective. In these pioneering studies the role of bacterial overgrowth in the small bowel by coliforms and other bacteria, which are normally confined to the colon, was found to be important. Subsequently, these same bacteria and the inflammatory response that they evoke have been incriminated in the pathophysiology of another common consequence of chronic liver disease, portal hypertension, as well as in other complications such as spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, systemic sepsis and hemostatic failure. Indeed, there are several manifestations of this tripartite resonance between microbiota, the liver and the central nervous system. Gut health factors such as small bowel bacterial overgrowth, an abnormal microbiota, impaired gut barrier function, a pro-inflammatory state and the appearance in the systemic circulation of neuro-active molecules generated by bacterial metabolism are all postulated to play important roles in the actual pathogenesis of a number of common liver diseases. So what is new?

From the basic science laboratories and a variety of animal models a pretty coherent message has emerged. Firstly, the microbiome can influence brain development, structure and function and lead to changes in cognition and behavior. Secondly, the manipulation of the microbiome – for example, with probiotics – can ameliorate certain brain disorders and reverse impaired function. Thirdly, the inoculation of microbiota samples from individuals with a number of neuropsychiatric disorders into animal models can recapitulate features of the human disease. So far so good.

As always, extrapolation from animal studies to humans is fraught with difficulties: differences between animal and human brains and microbiota, the limitations of animal models of psychiatric and functional bowel disorders, and, above all, the challenges of studying brain function in humans. The good news is that these challenges are being addressed. Researchers are utilizing various technologies that provide dynamic images of brain function in various parts of the brain in response to a variety of situations, stimuli and exposures. These are now beginning to provide evidence that our microbiota can influence brain function and that the gut microbiota might, indeed, be a therapeutic target for patients with disorders such as depression, Parkinson’s disease and autism. Data are preliminary and certainly not at a stage where we can offer diagnostic testing based on a fecal sample or recommend antibiotics, prebiotics, probiotics or fecal microbiota transplantation for a given neuropsychiatric disease or disorder. But watch this space!