Elderly people could ward off digestive problems with probiotics, said scientists at a briefing yesterday that may raise awareness of the benefits amongst this sector of the population and help direct marketing of consumer products.
The comments were made by Professor Glenn Gibson of the University of Reading at a briefing at the Science Media Centre, at which Dr Sandra McFarlene of Dundee University also presented on ulcerative colitis.
Dr McFarlane explained that people over the age of 60 years have around 1000-fold less of the so-called friendly bacteria in their guts. The balance is thus more heavily weighted towards 'unfriendly' bacteria, which may make them more susceptible to gastrointestinal infections and bowel conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.
The message of yesterday's briefing could act as a spur for companies to target the older strata of the population with their marketing, where previously fit and energetic young people have figured large.
What is more, the publicity that Prof Gibson and Dr McFarlane's comments have received in the mainstream media may make some elderly people aware of the benefits of probiotics for the first time.
Within the industry and scientific communities, though, the potential benefits for the elderly are not unknown.
A review of the scientific literature on the subject by Professor Jeremy Hamilton-Miller of the Royal Free and University College Medical School was published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal in 2004 (doi:10.1136/pgmj.2003.015339 Vol. 80, pp. 447-451).
"Review of the literature suggests that three problems common in the elderly, namely, undernutrition, constipation, and the decline in efficiency of the immune system leading to reduced capacity to resist infection, may all be beneficially affected by appropriate probiotic organisms," he wrote.
"These are most conveniently taken either as yoghurts or as specific supplements. Much further work is necessary to determine long term outcomes and the most suitable probiotic strains."
Jose Bosa Puerta, managing vice director of Puleva Biotech, told NutraIngredients.com that although his company's Hereditum range of probiotic strains from human breast milk is currently aimed at infants and children, the elderly population is a priority for future developments.
He stressed that one single probiotic is not suitable for every use. It is necessary to study strains from a variety of sources to identify one with specific beneficial properties, such as boosting elderly peoples' immune systems.
Many of the marketing materials for probiotic products feature lively and energetic young people, might elderly people be suspicious of trying a new kind of product that has been available for less than a decade?
Bosa Puerta does not think so.
"It depends on the country," he said, "but elderly people know a lot about the relationship btween diet and health. They are used to taking care of themselves and read publications of functional foods that have been around for the last 10 years."
One company that has already tapped the elderly market for probiotics is SevenSeas, which launched its Multibionta 50+ supplements five years ago.
However the message on probiotics going out to consumers is not all good.
Seven Seas is one of companies praised for making effective products in terms of the live bacteria surviving through the gastrointestinal tract, but in tests conducted by Prof Gibson several years ago the bacteria in as many as half the products on the UK market did not survive in order to impart benefits.
But Prof Gibson told NutraIngredients.com today that since his research on probiotic activity and stability in the marketplace many new products have been introduced, and a new study is therefore needed.
Prof Gibson also conducted a review of products in the marketplace for the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which was published last year.
A spokesperson for the FSA said today, however, that the research was limited in scope since it did not assess efficacy of the probiotic bacteria, just survivability.
She said that FSA has no plans to conduct more work in this area at the moment, but that the incoming EU Health and Nutrition Claims Regulation should level the playing field in terms of claims that can be made and the credibility of the science behind them.
In the meantime, Prof Gibson recommends that consumers should check the labels of product to ensure that they contain lactobacilli or bifidobaceria, and that their numbers are at least 107
"They may also contact the suppliers to see what science back up there is," he said.