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Probiotics: a trend on the rise

  Photo: Unsplash

Photo: Unsplash

Beatriz Gonzlez
These bacteria, which are found in many foods, are credited with having beneficial effects against different diseases, although the experts think that more research is needed

Each year, the probiotics market moves about 26 billion euros, mainly in Europe, according to data provided by the University of Copenhagen’s meta-analysis, published in Genome Medicine. The reason is that these microorganisms’ beneficial health effects have been promoted more in Europe than in other continents. They are credited with having beneficial effects in the prevention and treatment of many diseases, such as diarrhoea, obesity or cancer, and, according to the experts, this is the main reason why they have become an attractive business whose sales are only expected to grow.

However, as Alicia Aguilar, professor at the UOC’s Faculty of Health Sciences and director of the University Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Health, explains, although studies have been undertaken to prove their effectiveness, more research is needed. “To date, their efficacy has been documented mostly for gastrointestinal problems. Although scientific publications abound on the applications of probiotics, more research is still needed (appropriate populations, well-defined strains and doses, long-term effect, etc). Guides are available with the different probiotics’ indications, based the studies performed,” she said, referring to the Global Guidelines of the World Gastroenterology Organisation.

A century of studies

The scientific community’s interest in these live microorganisms, which when ingested in sufficient quantity have beneficial effects on people’s health, dates back several decades, even though it is only recently that we have started to hear about them. As UOC Faculty of Health Sciences professor Anna Bach reminds us, back in the early 20th century, the Nobel Laureate Metchnikoff related the lactic acid bacteria with beneficial effects on health and longevity.

Since then, there has been a continuing interest in investigating the mechanisms involved in these beneficial health effects and the impact on our microbiota (the microbial population that lives in our gut and mucosal membranes and plays an important role in digestion and vitamin production, among other functions), although now it is not just the scientific community that is interested in these studies. The industry has also shown interest, as probiotics can be added to an extensive range of products, foods, food supplements or medicines.

“Probiotics can be found on the market in different forms. As food supplements in capsule or powder form (they can also contain a mixture of different probiotic strains), in follow-up formulas (powdered milk for babies over 6 months) or in foods such as fermented dairy products (yoghurt, some cheeses, and so on),” said Marta Massip, course instructor at the UOC’s Faculty of Health Sciences. “Although it is most usual to find them in fermented dairy products when used as a food product, there are also other products such as juices, cereals or energy bars which are supplemented with probiotics,” she explained.


But what exactly are these microorganisms that we can find in such different forms? Aguilar explains that the probiotic microorganisms “are usually, but not always, lactic acid bacteria such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptoccocus termophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Lactobacillus reuteri or, to give an example that isn’t a bacterium, the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii”.

As regards how much should be consumed, this varies depending on the population we are talking about – adults, children, pregnant women, etc – but, generally speaking, it exceeds 1 billion microorganisms per consumption unit. “The quantity of probiotics is expressed in colony-forming units (cfu), which is an indication of the number of live organisms contained in the product. Although there may be some variation, the required average is more than 1 billion microorganisms per consumption unit, whether this be by vial, capsule or as a food product,” said Bach.

As regards the possible adverse effects if the consumption instructions are not followed, none have been described as yet. “In principle, there are no risks, as the probiotic microorganisms selected have no pathogenic capacity for our body. However, when talking about health, it is always important to follow the consumption instructions and watch and take precautions in people with significant immunodepression problems, for example,” said Massip.



Photograph of Anna Bach

Anna Bach Faig

Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in: Promoting health through nutrition and exercise. Spokesperson for community nutrition: workplace nutrition, gastronomy, restaurants and health.

Knowledge area: Nutrition, food and health.

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Photograph of Marta Massip

Marta Massip Salcedo

Adjunct professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in: Expert in metabolic pathways, insulin resistance, fatty liver, ketogenic diets, low-carb diets, microbiomes, food, and nutrition.

Knowledge area: Metabolism, biochemistry, food and nutrition.

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Photograph of Alicia Aguilar Martnez

Alicia Aguilar Martnez

Lecturer in the Health Sciences Department
Director of the Master's Degree in Nutrition and Health Deputy Deanof Teaching in the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in: Educational innovation in e-health; food studies from a health perspective; biotechnology; nutritional education.

Knowledge area: Nutrition.

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