Exploring Probiotics
July 16/Pediatrics Week -- An emerging body of scientific research about probiotics was presented at the academic conference "Protective Nutrients, Are They Here To Stay?," an annual Harvard Medical School Division of Nutrition Annual Postgraduate Nutrition Symposium. Every year, cutting-edge topics are selected to provide education about emerging topics in nutrition to key opinion leaders and healthcare providers, and this year, probiotics took center stage.

The symposium brought together world-class researchers to discuss the interactions between diet and protective nutrients, such as probiotics, and to describe the mechanisms at work behind their specific health benefits. Probiotics are defined by FAO/WHO as "live microorganisms, which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host."

Dr. W. Allan Walker, director of the division of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School, opened the day-and-a-half symposium taking a look into the scientific and academic journal standard for protective nutrients. Mary Ellen Sanders, Ph.D., executive director of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), provided an overview about probiotics highlighting that specific strains of probiotics function uniquely in different conditions since (collectively speaking) they are a diverse group of microorganisms. "A probiotic must undergo controlled evaluation to document health benefits in humans," she said. The ISAPP recently clarified the FAO/WHO definition, including this detail.

Philip Sherman, M.D., FRCP(C), FAAP, gastroenterologist and senior scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and professor of pediatrics in the department of Microbiology and Dentistry at the University of Toronto, who moderated the session, discussed the precise mechanisms of action by which probiotics function. "Some probiotics affect integrity of the epithelial barrier, while others impact different aspects of immune function," said Sherman.

Consuming certain specific probiotics, like those in cultured dairy products, can help strengthen the body's natural defenses by providing a regular source of "friendly" bacteria to the intestinal tract. This helps to correct any imbalance of beneficial to "bad" bacteria. Also, since about 70% of the human immune system is located in the digestive tract, certain probiotics have been found to help to optimize the function of the immune system as well as various functions of the intestinal lining.

Additional experts on the program included Stefano Guandalini, M.D. (director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center), Martin Floch, M.D. (clinical professor of Medicine at Yale School of Medicine), and Eamonn Quigley, M.D. (professor of Medicine and Human Physiology at Cork University Hospital). They shared their extensive knowledge and the latest research about probiotics in children, adults and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, respectively, as well as their insights about current preventive practices, treatments, and health promoting approaches.

Specific strains of probiotics have been clinically shown to be effective in the prevention and treatment of certain gastrointestinal disorders, respiratory infections, and allergic conditions. This educational program provided scientific evidence to health professionals who are increasingly recommending them to patients.

As new research has emerged demonstrating an increasingly wide range of uses for probiotics to benefit human health, probiotic foods and supplements continue to grow in usage and awareness in the U.S. market and are expected to continue to expand.

A webcast of the symposium will be made available at http://nutrition.med.harvard.edu/webcast.html

From the July 20, 2009, Prepared Foods E-dition