Yakult enters age of dietary microbes and microbiota composition data

27 Nov 2023 — Most proclaimed probiotics on the market today do not reveal how many live bacteria are in the supplements nor provide the scientific literature to verify the health benefits. Experts from probiotics pioneer Yakult Europe and the Netherlands installation sit down with Nutrition Insight in a two-part series to explain the modern research perspective on the gut microbiome, microorganisms and their role in overall health.

The first characterization of a probiotic that claims to improve gut health should include how many live bacteria it contains and the scientific literature about the strain and its benefits — in Yakult’s case that is the Lacticaseibacillus paracasei Shirota, named after the founding father (Minoru Shirota) of their original strain in 1935. 

Dr. Olaf Larsen, senior manager science, Yakult Nederland, tells us that current research targets the supply of live microorganisms to restore a compromised gut. “We just finished research to see how this concept is being incorporated among healthcare professionals — especially dietitians in the Netherlands.” 

“It is currently very much in focus for the scientific community. How are you going to prevent it? For example, one of the things we would like to do is incorporate more of the Mediterranean diet. This improves the quality of life by improving the gut microbiota status. It basically pushes away the process of aging,” Larsen explains.

Meanwhile, the concept was already practiced in China over 1600 years ago by supplementing people with a yellow soup containing live bacteria. 

Dietary microbes
The notion is further explained by trained microbiologist Dr. Bruno Pot, Ph.D., science director at Yakult Europe. “We are trying, with a number of associations like ISAPP (International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics), to address the concept of dietary microbes which is missing currently.”

“It’s a food category which doesn’t exist yet. Very similar to dietary fibers. Dietary fibers are known to every nutritionist — every dietitian in the world knows the importance of dietary fiber to health,” Pot tells us.Dietary microbes is a new area of research being pursued by Yakult Europe and Yakult Nederland (Credit: Yakult).

“I think that the microbiota science points out that it’s really important also to have a supplement with live microorganisms because what we’ve seen in the last 50 years is the diversity of the microbiota has gone down dramatically and at the same time we’ve seen an increase in non-communicable diseases.” 

“The hypothesis was proposed in 2002 and in the meantime further research has been done, which has confirmed indeed we have lost a lot of diversity in our gut through the way we eat. 

The USDA database was used to collect information to fuel the research that is going on there.”   

As chair of the Microbiome Working Group in the US, Pot explains the USDA database now has the capability to allow food and beverage producers to include the number of bacteria in their products. “Yakult was the first in the US to put our numbers in the database because that will become research to see exactly how many microorganisms people are ingesting,” he says.   

At least 40,000 complete microbiota compositions are needed to understand how the functionalities (that lead to disease types) link to each other. 

Last month, Yakult Europe hosted thought leaders to present emerging research findings on the link between gut health and its effect on mental health. In the previous 30 years, there has been a steep upward trend in rising cases of depression and anxiety in Western countries. 

Researchers have connected the upward trend and the gut microbiome’s role in preventing these mental and mood disorders to avoid “catastrophic collapse.”

Current research into the microbiome delves more deeply into metabolic indications and the causes of metabolic syndrome, which occurs when at least three of the five dangerous markers are present, such as high levels of obesity, cholesterol, blood pressure, insulin and lipid levels.  

“We looked for articles showing the prevalence of the percentage of the US population suffering from metabolic syndrome and constructed a trendline from several sources. We see that the percentage of people suffering from metabolic syndrome is going up to about 40%. That’s incredibly high and metabolic syndrome is a constellation of disease indications,” Larsen underscores. 

While it is commonly thought that a marker such as obesity is caused by diet, the Yakult scientists have determined that “some kind of inflammation is at the core of all these disease types.”Yakult is involved in an USDA initiative that will allow F&B producers to state how many live bacteria are in their products (Credit: Yakult).

“You can bring back all disease types to one factor which is a chronic inflammation in your body and in the beginning it’s very low level. You can go to your GP and get a blood test and nothing is showing up — so it’s all sub-clinical,” Larsen says.

“But when you age, this also goes up more and more. We call it ‘inflammaging.’ This chronic inflammaging increases and leads to all kinds of disease types, especially Western diseases.”

Bi-directional signaling
A new way of analyzing microbiota has evolved in current scientific analysis. In the past researchers would look at the kind of microorganisms in the gut which does not include its ratio or how they communicate with other microorganisms. 

Pot explains: “The idea now is to look into the metabolism and not into the composition so that is something for the future.” 

“The difficulty in finding the healthy microbiota is that none of us have the same microbiota. The way around this nowadays is to look into metabolites. Do we have enough metabolites? Do you have enough production of short chain fatty acids? Don’t you have the production of certain toxins or certain compounds that are potentially dangerous to developing cancer?”

“That is now becoming the standard for the quality of your microbiota. Before we were only looking for who is there and this has changed to ‘what are they doing there?,’” Pot underscores. 

The bi-directional signaling between the brain and gut microbiota remains an essential area of research. The gut microbiota and the intestines send signals to the brain influencing brain health and vice versa. Larsen says: “This ‘inflammaging’ leads to a decline in the gut microbiota and brain health.” 

“We see that all kinds of neural indications like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s but also mental disorders like autism and depression are directly related, and more likely also causally affected by the quality of the gut microbiota,” Larsen concludes.

Meanwhile, scientists at Harvard Medical School found a link between suppressing emotions and gut health among women but found no association with diets. At the same time, a China-based study found a link between Western diets and Crohn’s disease — a chronic inflammatory bowel disease in the gastrointestinal tract. 

By Inga de Jong

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