The skinny on functional foods

London: How do you identify reliable probiotics? What benefits do they offer? How can they help the immune system in its constant battle against infection and allergy? Is there really any evidence to indicate that taking probiotics is associated with a reduced cancer risk? And how will the forthcoming EU regulations help clarify probiotic claims for the consumer?

A panel of experts explained all today, reviewing the latest available evidence on probiotics at YakultÂ’s science symposium at the Institute of Physics, London.

Tom MacDonald, Professor of Immunology at Barts & the London School of Medicine, commented “The gut contains most of the immune cells in the body, so drinking probiotics gives the immune system a boost to prevent infections and allergies”

“There is a lot of evidence from studies on cell cultures and in animals that probiotics, prebiotics and combinations of the two can exert anticancer effects. Until recently, there has been little work conducted in humans,” said Professor Ian Rowland, University of Ulster.

But a new paper, soon to be published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reports a study conducted as part of the European Union funded ‘SYNCAN’ Project. In this investigation, volunteers were fed a mixture of pro and prebiotics, or placebo, for eight weeks and a wide range of indicators of colon cancer risk were measured.

“Those subjects on the pro and prebiotics had less DNA damage and a lower rate of cell proliferation in biopsies taken from their colons. This feeding of pro and prebiotics also saw improvements in certain characteristics of faeces samples that may indicate reduced cancer risk.

“Whilst this evidence is not definitive, the study does suggest that the extensive data showing anticancer activity from experiments in animals and isolated cells may apply to humans, and that more studies in human volunteers are warranted,” said Professor Rowland

Experts reviewed the effects of probiotics on a range of disorders, including IBS, gastroenteritis, infections, eczema, allergies, cancers and other clinical conditions.

Catherine Collins, Chief Dietitian, St. GeorgeÂ’s Hospital, London said the challenge facing dietitians today was to help people understand which probiotic to choose, dependent on their health condition.

“Generic recommendation of probiotics is irrelevant as different bacterial strains exhibit different effects on human health, and the effectiveness of one species or strain cannot be inferred from another.”

Commenting on why probiotic ‘shots’ had been embraced so enthusiastically by the British consumer, for example, she added that the probiotic industry “…has created public awareness of the link between probiotics and their potential ability to alleviate common intestinal conditions such as bloating, constipation and diarrhoea.

Prof David Richardson (DPR Nutrition) explained how the forthcoming EU health claims regulation should help reduce consumer confusion about functional foods. For the first time, this will allow probiotics to make claims to reduce the risk of disease when substantiated by generally accepted scientific evidence.