Millions of “bugs” or bacteria live in and around us. We assume that all microorganisms are harmful for health, but this is not true. Most bacteria are beneficial for our existence, there are only a small number that are pathogenic or harmful . The beneficial bacteria are present all over our body the largest and best defined are those that reside in our large intestine and they are known as the gut microbiota.
These organisms reach the large intestine soon after birth and they are sourced through the mother’s environment including breast milk. Such beneficial bacteria also come through food sources particularly the fermented foods and fermented dairy products. But not all bacteria from food can survive the harsh gastro-intestinal acidic and alkaline environment and therefore may not reach and stay in the large intestine. Bacteria which are capable of surviving the passage through the intestine , stay and increase in number in our large intestine are defined as probiotics.
It was well known in traditional medicine that the seat of most illness is in the intestine, which meant that a good gut health led to a good overall well-being. The reason is the presence of millions of beneficial bacteria in our intestine, which protect from invading harmful organisms, improve our immunity, communicate with various organ systems through small biological molecules produced by bacterial fermentation, digest the undigestible material in our food and also promote normal bowel movement and eliminate toxic substances from the intestine.
Biological variation and the pattern of the various species and strains of bacteria that grow in our intestines is directly dependent on the food that we consume. Complex carbohydrates that include soluble and insoluble fibres help in the distribution and population of the beneficial bacteria while highly refined foods with very little fibre or residual material may lead to depletion of the beneficial bacteria and replacement with the harmful ones. Presence of some of these harmful bacteria may trigger the body’s immune system to produce inflammatory molecules that may harm our own body.
Food sources of this probiotic bacteria maybe either through naturally and traditionally fermented foods with well-defined bacterial types that have probiotic properties or by the addition of well-established probiotic bacteria into food matrices. Curd or Yogurt is a common example of a fermented food but the naturally occurring bacteria in them may or may not have probiotic properties. Fermented foods that are subsequently heated or boiled will destroy the probiotic bacteria even if they were to be present.
We need to consume food that is rich in dietary fibre and prebiotics. For example, garlic, onion, chicory, raw banana, apples, flax seeds and several varieties of green vegetables and fruit are all rich in dietary fibre and fructo-oligosaccharides are prebiotics, which are the food for good intestinal bacteria.
Ultra-processed foods with very little dietary fibre will not help in the growth of these bacteria and may lead to disturbances in the gut and other consequences. Food regulation also mentions the nature of the bacteria, which have probiotic properties and also the minimum required numbers which are known to give the ultimate benefit. Consumers should be aware of these facts and choose the right kind of both natural as well as processed foods so that their gut always remains healthy and maintains their overall wellbeing.