We are—on both the cellular and genetic level—more bacteria than human. There are 100 times more genes in our bodies coding for the microorganisms in our intestines than our own human genes. Imagine the potential for opening new doors to medical discovery through manipulating the ecosystem of microorganisms flourishing within us.
When we eat natural probiotic foods like soy-based foods, yogurt, or pickled foods, we introduce additional microorganisms into our intestinal microsystem. Manufactured probiotic products, such as Greek yogurt, Dannon’s Activia, and Yoplait Original, are frequently advertised as a way to improve health. Companies boast that probiotics can improve digestive health and the immune system, but not all manufactured products can support their claims.
Among other responsibilities, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assures the safety of foods and drugs, but it holds probiotics to a different standard. When it comes to foods and drugs, the FDA must substantiate “health claims,” but probiotic manufacturers are allowed to make unregulated, nonspecific statements describing how their supplement maintains normal functioning of the body. Thus, probiotics are advertised to “improve general digestion” without the FDA’s endorsement.
Categorization governs what kind of regulations the FDA requires for a certain product. Probiotics, however, can be squeezed to fit at least four categories, adding to the challenge of controlling the quality, characteristics, and risks of probiotics.
As a result of the lax FDA policy, marketing standards are not well-regulated. To ensure the efficacy of probiotics, several aspects must be moderated: the identification of bacteria hosted in the product, the shelf life and acceptable methods of storage to ensure bacteria viability, and a dosage that correlates to the number of bacteria in the product. Since true probiotics must contain live and active cultures of bacteria, the manufacturing, shipment, and storage must accommodate for the bacteria’s sensitivity to the environment. Due to these specific conditions, strict regulation is needed to ascertain the nutritional value of probiotics.
The mechanism by which probiotics affect our microbiota is still being explored. Recent research has indicated that manipulating intestinal microbiota could lead to a potential cure for severe acute malnutrition (SAM) and obesity. SAM accounts for 35 percent of deaths in children under the age of 5, and is characterized by a very low weight for height.
Dr. Jeffrey Gordon at Washington University School of Medicine is a pioneer researcher in the field of microbial ecology. His experiments involve the transplantation of human microbiota into sterile mice to assess the effectiveness of various diets. When mice were given the same diets, the batch with microbiota transplanted from SAM children in Malawi exhibited extreme weight loss compared to mice with microbiota transplanted from healthy individuals. This shows that the gut microbiota plays as significant of a role in malnutrition and obesity as does diet. Research in this field may determine how to change the current treatment for SAM.
Overall, there is great potential in the study of microbiota, ranging from effective probiotics to treating life-threatening illnesses. While the FDA still needs to reevaluate how it regulates probiotics, you can extend a warm welcome to the bacteria in your yogurt as they settle into their new home– your intestines.