Over Sixties Advised to Boost Daily Diet With Good Bacteria
Everyone over the age of 60 should be encouraged to take Probiotic products daily to boost their declining levels of “good” bacteria and protect them against intestinal infections including hospital super-bugs experts say. A group of leading food microbiologists yesterday called for wider use of Probiotics, particularly among elderly people, as well as tighter rules on labelling, so that specific details are provided about the bacteria in products.
They say that about half the Probiotics available were inaccurately labelled and did not do what they claimed, while some were found to contain unhealthy pathogens. Most of the serious offenders were sold over the internet and from unorthodox health food shops. The warning did not apply to the mainstream brands used by the majority of people, such as those made by Danone, Yakult and Nestle and sold as supermarkets own brands.
“Friendly” bacteria aid digestion in the gut and reduce the chances of stomach upsets. Research suggests that they also help to prevent bowel conditions and protect children against allergies, and may reduce the risk of colon cancer. Recently there has been an explosion in the use of Probiotics, including yoghurt-style drinks, supplements and powders.
The group of scientists led by Glen Gibson, Professor of Food Microbiology at the University of Reading, said that people should be aware of the benefits of maintaining balanced gut flora, including high levels of good bacteria. The most common types are species belonging to the lactobacillus and bifidobacillus families.
Experts believe that high-fat, low-fibre Western diets may contribute to a lack of friendly bacteria and an increase in harmful bacteria. About 90 % of the bacteria in the gut of a newborn infant are friendly microbes, but this is reduced to 10-15 % in the average adult. After the age of 60 to 65, levels of friendly bacteria plummet 1,000-fold. “The elderly are definitely an excellent market for Probiotic intake”. Professor Gibson said. “Awareness in the UK is increasing slowly but it is not great. It is a tricky concept to get over to people”
He said it was no accident that in the world’s worst recorded case of food poisoning by the stomach bug E.Coli 0157, all those who died were elderly. A total of 21 people were killed in Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1996.
The research group said that one of the biggest obstacles in the way of useful Probiotics was price, with a week’s supply sometimes costing about ?3. Probiotic products need to contain at least ten million bacteria to be effective. It is also vital that the bacteria survive their passage through the gastrointestinal system. A recent study indicated that nine patients with ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease that causes bloody bowel movements and abdominal pain, had 30-fold reduced levels of Bifidobacteria. Four weeks after being given a bifidobacteria Probiotic, plus a sugary supplement to promote growth of the bacteria, they reported fewer symptoms. Many less well-known products did not live up to the promises made on their labels, the scientists said. They may not contain the numbers of bacteria advertised, and the microbes may not survive in the gut long enough.
Consumers were also advised not to trust brands of healthy yoghurt promoted as being Probiotic without any specific information about the bacteria they contain. “There are a lot of products out there that no one has ever heard of, and this is where the problems arise. There’s no legislation”, professor Gibson said. “You could buy a yoghurt maker from Tesco, make your own Probiotics, and sell them”. There were moves under way within the European Parliament to introduce controls on Probiotics but the “wheels turn very slowly”.
Bacteria can be healthy but not all products are what they claim
The subject of what lurks inside the human gut had not attracted much in the way of conservation beyond microbiology circles until recently. The commercial success of a number of Probiotic products has changed all that, with hundreds of thousands of people now prepared to pay to “top up” the “good bacteria” in their bodies with reinforcements. The claims made for Probiotics include a role in helping to treat conditions as varied as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic tiredness or teenage acne. Rigorous scientific assessments of the benefits of these competing supplements has been slow in coming, but clear-cut benefits are emerging.
A number of leading researchers in the field, including Professor Glen Gibson, of the University of Reading, outlined yesterday their latest conclusions on a rapidly expanding industry. These are broadly positive and could represent an advanced in the prevention of illness. There are “good bacteria” and their relative strength is a significant factor in a person’s health. Almost everyone can be assisted but Probiotics are particularly useful for those on antibiotics or over the age of 60. Scientists also believe that they can be employed to lower significantly the chance of patients enduring hospital-acquired infections.
That does not, nevertheless, mean that every product, which advertises itself as a Probiotic, is equally valid. While the researchers concluded that well-known names, such as Yakult, Vitality and Actimel, are worthwhile, many of those that retailed exclusively on the Internet or in the more esoteric fringe of the health food shop sector are distinctly dubious. Their estimate is that about half of the 50 products that are marketed as Probiotics are pale imitations of Probiotics.
The regulation of products sold on the Internet is a notoriously complicated question. It is hard to prevent cyberspace becoming the domain of snake oil salesmen. Bodies such as the Food Standard Agency may, therefore, be better advised to publicise the names of those brands that they consider to be correctly labelled and allow consumers to reach the conclusion that anything else is not to be trusted. An important innovation should not be undermined by mis-selling.
There is a far broader public health point here. Reaching a consensus on what substances are unhealthy and how bad they are has proved a contentious business. The argument over how much is too much salt is a classic example. The “traffic light” system of labelling food has encountered difficulties. It might be better to place more weight on highlighting the positive instead of arguing about the negative.
More than two million Britons regularly buy Drinks, yoghurts and capsules containing Probiotics, in a market worth an estimated ?135 million a year.
About 20 % of the population suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, which is often traced to a bacterial imbalance in the gut.
Llya Mechnikov, a Nobel prize-winning scientist, was the first to link yoghurt to improved life expectancy in the early 1900s after observing that a group of Bulgarian peasants lived for much longer than their peers. He discovered that they drank large quantities of sour milk.
Experts believe that the sale of prebiotics supplements that boost bacteria already in the gut rather than introduce more, as Probiotics do will soar in the next few years.
Prebiotics are a form of dietary fibre and do not create the same storage and consumption problems as live bacteria in Probiotics.
THE TIMES newspaper 8th Aug. 2006