Prebiotics and probiotics: are they functional foods?

Marcel B Roberfroid

A probiotic is a viable microbial dietary supplement that beneficially affects the host through its effects in the intestinal tract. Probiotics are widely used to prepare fermented dairy products such as yogurt or freeze-dried cultures. In the future, they may also be found in fermented vegetables and meats. Several health-related effects associated with the intake of probiotics, including alleviation of lactose intolerance and immune enhancement, have been reported in human studies. Some evidence suggests a role for probiotics in reducing the risk of rotavirus-induced diarrhea and colon cancer. 

Prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that benefit the host by selectively stimulating the growth or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon. Work with prebiotics has been limited, and only studies involving the inulin-type fructans have generated sufficient data for thorough evaluation regarding their possible use as functional food ingredients. At present, claims about reduction of disease risk are only tentative and further research is needed. Among the claims are constipation relief, suppression of diarrhea, and reduction of the risks of osteoporosis, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease associated with dyslipidemia and insulin resistance, obesity, and possibly type 2 diabetes. 

The combination of probiotics and prebiotics in a synbiotic has not been studied. This combination might improve the survival of the bacteria crossing the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract, thereby enhancing their effects in the large bowel. In addition, their effects might be additive or even synergistic. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;71(suppl):1682S–7S

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