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The Prebiotic Definition Debate

Category: Educational Articles

Language is interesting to many people beyond professional linguists, and as well it should be. Definitions often morph and we change how we use words.

“Prebiotics” is a great example, I believe. As food science evolves, revealing how a food ingredient works selectively in the human body, this growing content of research affects the definition. This is important to discuss and consider because it is not just a marketing term, it has true biological effects. Therefore, it also has regulatory considerations, an impact on the manufacturing of foods, beverages and supplements, as well as on healthcare professionals and consumers.

There are some in the industry who staunchly believe that only a small group of fibers and carbohydrates (sugars) may be deemed a prebiotic, and nothing else can carry this moniker. We argue respectfully that this is not the case. Indeed, there are other naturally existing compounds that also function as prebiotics. Narrowing the prebiotic definition so that it excludes all other, non-sugar compounds would only be beneficial to those in the industry who have a vested interest in having prebiotics exclusive to fibers and carbohydrates.

In 1995, researchers Glenn Gibson and Marcel Roberfroid introduced the prebiotic concept in a landmark paper in the Journal of Nutrition. They defined a prebiotic as “a non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, and thus improves host health.” Although this original definition has been revised multiple times, the main features have mostly been retained. The 2008 FAO definition, for example, describes a prebiotic as a “nonviable food component that confers a health benefit on the host associated with modulation of the microbiota.”

I attended an NIH conference about the topic of non-traditional prebiotics. What piqued my interest was that NIH was seeking to fund research on prebiotics by function not class. Prebiotics were discussed as being more than the complex sugars – for the purpose of this conference, they were considered to be any non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, thereby improving the resilience of the host’s health. In other words, prebiotics should be defined not only as a class, such as complex sugars, but by their function; to modulate the microbiota in a way that promotes the health of the host.

Now it becomes clear to see that dramatically restricting what is considered a prebiotic by class (some fibers and carbs) while shutting others out that function as prebiotics such as lactoferrin, almond lipids, and bacteriophages to name a few – is limiting at the expense of total human microbiome health.

We at Deerland, experts in research and production of probiotics, prebiotics and enzymes, are very comfortable with the well-conceived definition that Gibson and Roberfroid crafted 20 years ago, and so is the FDA, based on its use of the same description. And we believe that the definition should remain the same but the manner in which it is used should change with the times – to not be so exclusive, to include any other natural-origin ingredient that research shows acts in the manner of a prebiotic. By this expansion of what constitutes a prebiotic, we can help people more easily achieve a good state of health and well-being.

About The Expert
John Deaton, Ph.D.
Vice President of Science & Technology, Deerland Enzymes & Probiotics

Dr. John Deaton is vice president of technology at Deerland Enzymes, with more than 18 years experience working with proteins and enzymes. He holds a PhD in biochemistry from Texas A&M University, with post-graduate studies in microbiology, biophysics and cancer research. He has two papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and is a six-year member of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC), with three years served on the committee of microbiology.

John Deaton, Ph.D.

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