Scientists question EFSA probiotic logic

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Fructooligosaccharide Probiotic Efsa

Three University of Reading scientists wrote to the European Commission in July expressing concern about EFSA’s approach to evaluating probiotic article 13.1 dossiers.

In a letter to the European Commission dated July 30 and written during the public consultation period for the claims, the scientists said they vehemently disagree” ​with EFSA’s view at the time that there was no evidence to show, “increasing the number of bifidobacteria in humans is per se beneficial to a normal GI function”.

They went on: “Moreover, we query the view that normal gastro-intestinal function is a benefit to health. If this is the case then why do statistics show a consistent yearly rise in acute and chronic gut disorders? In the absence of a definition of what constitutes ‘normal’ we view this as a fairly meaningless statement.”

“We cannot understand the panel’s statement on bifidobacteria and health. It seems to ignore a large body of published data.”

20 years, 150 research projects

The scientists said their view was backed by 150 research projects over 20 years in the prebiotic area that was the basis of the EFSA query at the time, but that “several hundred” other ​probiotic and synbiotic studies yielded similar conclusions via a stimulation of bifidobacteria and/or lactobacilli.

“The majority of successful human trials on prebiotics show significantly increased intestinal levels of bifidobacteria,”​ the scientists wrote. “Often these are associated with well characterised and accepted markers of health.”

They said such markers included:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease.​ One study showed intake of 24g/day of inulin for three weeks reduced the endoscopic and histological pouchitis disease index score, lowered gut pH and reduced bile acid in faecal samples.
  • Antibiotic associated diarrhoea. ​A study showed daily ingestion of 12g of fructooligosaccharides (FOS) reduced episodes of diarrhoea in 142 patients with C. difficile​-induced diarrhoea.
  • Travellers’s diarrhoea. ​A study involving 244 healthy subjects travelling to high or medium risk destinations for traveller’s diarrhoea received either 10g of FOS or placebo for two weeks before travelling and then for two weeks while they were away. The prevalence of diarrhoea was lower in the prebiotic group and less severe attacks of diarrhoea were also recorded.
  • Colon cancer.​ Many studies demonstrating presence of bifidobacteria and other probiotic strains can reduce levels of tumour-promoters and genotoxins.
  • Calcium absorption and bone health. ​Studies show presence of inulin can improve calcium absorption.

The scientists concluded: “Although it could be argued that these studies alone do not necessarily indicate causality, when combined with the results of trials in human subjects and animals supplemented with live bifidobacteria they do indeed provide compelling evidence that the relationship between intestinal bifidobacteria and health is causal.”

They said EFSA’s position threatened Europe’s leading research position in the area.

“Should such ill-informed and badly-researched conclusions be reached as is the case with the EFSA judgment made here, then we fear for the future of this research in the EU.

“We can foresee a situation whereby major sponsors will concentrate their efforts outside of Europe – for example North America and Asia where government agencies, scientists and industry seem to working together in a much more transparent, informed and constructive manner than in Europe. Ultimately, European consumers will lose out on a critical area of public health.”

The three UoR scientists are Glenn Gibson, Professor of Food Microbiology and Head of Food Microbial Sciences Unit; Bob Rastall, Professor of Biotechnology and Head of Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences and Ian Rowland, Professor of Human Nutrition and Head of Nutrition Research Group at Reading University.

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