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Can probiotics and prebiotics help to maintain overall health and protect ourselves against diseases?
 4 min read

The human gut microbiome is the entire community of microorganisms present in the gut: bacteria, yeasts, viruses and other microbes. Researchers are now slowly unravelling its role in human development, behaviour and diseases and it’s becoming clear that it has a major impact on health. An unbalanced microbiome composition is linked to many common illnesses associated with an unhealthy lifestyle, such as diabetes, cancer and obesity, to name a few. How can we influence our gut microbiome to support a healthy living? Optimising our diet, for example with probiotics and prebiotics, could have a huge health effect.



Probiotics are live bacteria or yeasts with a proven beneficial health effect. They are found naturally in the gut, but are also present in different food products or supplements. After consumption, probiotics need to survive the acidic environment of the stomach first and to then occupy the intestines. Probiotics influence the gut microbiome via three mechanisms: they prevent pathogens adhering to the intestinal lining of the gut, combat pathogens, and help to boost the immune system. Diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease are a few of the many disorders which could be treated by probiotics.

 Food entrepreneurs can use a combination of probiotics in their food products, enhancing the chances of a positive health effect [1]. Probiotics are living organisms that use nutrients from foods. Probiotics are naturally present in or added to fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, cheese; their addition to vegetables, fruit, biscuits, cereal and soya-based products is also being investigated [2]. Most of these products contain a large amount of such bacteria, to ensure a sizeable portion reaches the intestines alive. Commonly used probiotics are Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium longum.


Prebiotics are dietary fibres that selectively stimulate the growth or metabolic activity of good bacteria mainly in the large intestine. The biggest health benefits arise from their end-products that are formed after fermentation in the large intestine. These end-products are useful for maintaining the health of the colon and contribute to the regulation of various metabolic activities [3]. Prebiotics aid in increasing mineral absorption [4], relieving constipation and promoting satiety. Prebiotics have also been reported to reduce body fat in obese children [5] and infantile colic risk [6]. Excess consumption of prebiotics however can lead to increased gas production and diarrhoea, especially in those individuals who suffer from recurring gastric problems.

Prebiotic fibres can be easily included in foods such as cereal and bakery products. Different prebiotics have different characteristics [7] and therefore the inclusion of a range of prebiotic fibres may increase their overall functionality. Common prebiotics are inulin, lactulose, tagatose and oligosaccharides such as FOS (Fructooligosaccharides), GOS (Galactooligosaccharides) and XOS (Xylooligosaccharides). Bananas, raw or cooked onions, raw garlic, raw leeks and raw asparagus are examples of natural prebiotic foods.


A combination of prebiotics and probiotics, known as synbiotics, seems to be the most effective way to ensure the viability of the probiotics while also having the prebiotic advantages. A homo-synbiotic contains a prebiotic fibre that feeds the probiotic, while a hetero-synbiotic contains both probiotics and prebiotics without interaction amongst them.


At the moment, the health benefits of most probiotics and prebiotics cannot be mentioned directly on the package as health claims. In the EU, using the word ‘probiotics’ is prohibited unless EFSA approves the health claim for a specific product containing a specific probiotic. It is however permitted for companies to state ‘with live, active cultures’ on their products.

MyNewGut project

The EU funded project MyNewGut is facilitating industries to develop healthy products whilst also actively identifying links between the gut microbiome and the risk of developing diseases. Researchers and industry are collaborating to enhance the understanding of how to influence the 300-3000 different species of bacteria. Want to know more about the project results, pro-/prebiotic ingredients, product applications or dietary interventions? Get in touch through the MyNewGut website or the contact form below.


1.     Timmerman, H., Koning, C., Mulder, L., Rombouts, F. and Beynen, A. (2004). Monostrain, multistrain and multispecies probiotics—A comparison of functionality and efficacy. International Journal of Food Microbiology, 96(3), pp.219-233.

2.     Saddam S. Awaisheh (2012). Probiotic Food Products Classes, Types, and Processing, Probiotics, Prof. Everlon Rigobelo (Ed.), InTech.

3.     Hooda, S., Swanson, KS., Fahey, GC. (2012). Prebiotic Mechanisms of Action [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

4.     E. Scholz-Ahrens, K., Ade, P., Marten, B., Weber, P., Timm, W., A?il, Y., Glüer, C. and Schrezenmeir, J. (2007). Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Synbiotics Affect Mineral Absorption, Bone Mineral Content, and Bone Structure. The Journal of Nutrition, 137(3), pp.838S-846S.

5.     Nicolucci, A., Hume, M., Martínez, I., Mayengbam, S., Walter, J. and Reimer, R. (2017). Prebiotic Reduces Body Fat and Alters Intestinal Microbiota in Children With Overweight or Obesity. Gastroenterology. (In Press)

6.     Vandenplas, Y., Ludwig, T., Bouritius, H., Alliet, P., Forde, D., Peeters, S., Huet, F. and Hourihane, J. (2017), Randomised controlled trial demonstrates that fermented infant formula with short-chain galacto-oligosaccharides and long-chain fructo- oligosaccharides reduces the incidence of infantile colic. Acta Paediatr, 106: 1150–1158. 

7.     Rycroft, C., Jones, M., Gibson, G. and Rastall, R. (2001). A comparative in vitro evaluation of the fermentation properties of prebiotic oligosaccharides. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 91(5), pp.878-887.

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MyNewGut an EU funded initiative

For whom: Health professionals and food producing enterprises, especially food producers in the dairy and bakery sectors. 

Objective: How the human gut microbiota influences obesity, behavioural- and lifestyle-related disorders.

Reason: Understanding how the gut microbiota affects the brain, metabolic and immune system can lead to the development of ingredients and food products for improving overall health and treating diseases.

Expected results: Scientific evidence that nutritional and lifestyle interventions can be used to control health and well-being. These results will be used to develop new pro-/prebiotic ingredients and products, as well as dietary recommendations. Such evidence will also be used to develop new strategies and EU policies on public health, and furthermore provide support for substantiating product health claims.

How: Building upon the expertise of world leaders in microbiology, omics- technologies, physiology, nutrition, immunology and the brain, and experimental and computational modelling, to implement a multi-disciplinary research program to establish the links between the microbiome and health, and identify specific dietary strategies to improve the long-term health of the population.

Areas of interest:  Human health, obesity, metabolic disorders, anxiety, depression, probiotics, prebiotics, disease reduction. 

When: From 2013 to 2018.

Funded by: European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme, with Grant Agreement no: 613979.

Partners: Thirty partners from 15 countries in Europe, North America, and Australasia, 21 RTD organizations, 6 industry partners and 3 associations.

Coordination: Yolanda Sanz, National Research Council (CSIC), Spain.

Contact: or get in touch via the form below.


Want to get more information about this topic?
Get in touch
Contact person:
Yolanda Sanz
Professor of Research
Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA) Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)

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