Researchers from Danone, the University of Milan (Italy), and Erasmus University (Netherlands) found that infants fed a combination of prebiotic galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) developed increased levels of beneficial bacteria in their guts.
The apparent benefits were also observed to endure after weaning, the researchers report in a paper published online ahead of print in the Journal of Nutrition.
“Data from this small explorative study indicate that early colonization of the intestine might have long-lasting effects on the composition of the intestinal microbiota,” wrote the researchers, led by Milan’s Filippo Salvini.
Arguably less well known than probiotics (beneficial bacteria) prebiotics are defined as “non-digestible (by the host) food ingredients that have a beneficial effect through their selective metabolism in the intestinal tract” (Gibson et al. 2004).
Breast versus bottle
Infant formula is a highly emotive area, with watchdogs keeping a close eye on companies' marketing tactics lest they drift towards promoting their products as preferable to breast feeding.
While it is agreed that breastfeeding is best, formulas are indispensable in cases where mothers are unable to feed their children - be it for health or logistical reasons.
The new study included infants from mothers infected with hepatitis C. The mothers decided against breastfeeding because of concerns over their condition and how this may affect their infants.
Commenting independently on the study, Professor Bob Rastall, head of the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Reading, told NutraIngredients-USA that the study was “interesting” and “intriguing”.
“The data suggests that early feeding with prebiotics may result in imprinting of the fecal flora with elevated levels of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli,” said Prof Rastall.
“Such studies are very difficult to do as it is ethically unacceptable to deny newborn babies a period of breast feeding. The volunteers in this case had medical reasons for choosing not to breast feed.
“The data are certainly intriguing but this is a very small study - and a large study in such volunteers would be a considerable challenge.
The researchers recruited 20 newborns to participate in their double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, explorative study. Infants randomly received formula containing 8 grams per liter of short-chain GOS and long-chain FOS in a 9:1 ratio, or the same amount of maltodextrin, for 6 months.
At the end of the feeding period, the researchers found that prebiotic supplementation was associated with increased levels of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli in the feces of the infants, compared with the maltodextrin-fed infants.
“These differences between the groups were maintained during the second half of the first year without any prebiotic supplementation,” added the researchers.
The researchers concluded that the study’ findings require confirmation in “larger studies additionally using molecular techniques of characterization of intestinal microbiota”.
Despite the general welcome of the study’s results, Prof Rastall sounded a note of caution.
“The microbiology data in this study are somewhat compromised as the authors have used culture-based microbiology, which is known to give unreliable results with the fecal microbiota,” he said.
“In addition, they only looked at bifidobacteria and lactobacilli so we do not have a view of the overall microbiota profiles in these babies. “
Source: Journal of Nutrition
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.3945/jn.110.136747
“A Specific Prebiotic Mixture Added to Starting Infant Formula Has Long-Lasting Bifidogenic Effects”
Authors: F. Salvini, E. Riva, E. Salvatici, G. Boehm, J. Jelinek, G. Banderali, M. Giovannini