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Being Alive, or Being Alive AND Well : Why Probiotic Viability and Vitality Matter.

The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” Encompassed in this definition are two of the most important characteristics any probiotic producer must consider: live microorganisms and confer a health benefit.

In other words, probiotics that work are optimized for both viability — being alive — and vitality — capable of doing what they’re supposed to do for their host. Maximizing both isn’t an easy task, but it’s critical for any producer’s bottom line. Quite simply, if the probiotic is dead on arrival or doesn’t confer the health benefit it is marketed for, consumers will go in search of a different one that does.

Why consumers care about viability and vitality

For many consumers, probiotic consumption is a daily ritual embedded in both modern and traditional culture. For some, it’s as routine as brushing your teeth or fixing breakfast.

Form, taste, and effectiveness are all critical components of the overall experience for consumers. Does the kimchi remind them of their grandmother’s kimchi they ate as a child? Is a probiotic pill too big and difficult to swallow? Does the yogurt help them get their gas and bloating under control or do they still experience embarrassing symptoms?

Effectiveness is especially important if the probiotic is tailored to help alleviate symptoms associated with certain disease conditions. Often, consumers ignore shortcomings in form and taste if the probiotic is effective– especially if it’s the only one that’s effective — but it doesn’t matter how good a probiotic tastes if it doesn’t provide the benefit the consumer expects.

The repercussions of probiotics that fail any of these points are mild to severe. At best, a frustrated consumer will take their money elsewhere.

Why producers should care about viability and vitality

Functional probiotics; i.e., effective probiotics, are those optimized for both viability and vitality.

This can sometimes be tricky to achieve, especially in a landscape of continually changing regulations and requirements around minimum active cell counts for various formulations — but it’s a worthwhile investment.

Maximizing viability and vitality not only keeps the consumer happy and coming back, but also saves the producer time and money during the production process itself. The costs of media, supplements, packaging, waste removal, chemical analysis, and concentration add up — so getting the process right the first time saves both time and money.

Optimizing probiotic viability and vitality

Probiotic bacteria, unlike common laboratory strains, must remain alive under conditions that are significantly more stressful than the optimized conditions they may find themselves under in the traditional microbiology laboratory. They must survive the entire production processes of fermentation, concentration, and storage. The drying stage of probiotic production, especially freeze drying, is a particularly stressful event for probiotic microorganisms.

The vast majority of probiotics are ingested orally and therefore must also successfully transit through the stomach and into the intestines before they begin to exert their effects. For many, their ability to adhere and colonize the gut, rather than simply pass through, is crucial for their beneficial effects to be realized. Therefore, probiotic strains must resist niche exclusion by resident microbes long enough to produce and release metabolites that exert a beneficial effect.

Probiotic viability is traditionally assessed by quantified growth on plates. A strain that doesn’t meet the minimum colony forming units (C.F.U.) is unfit for further production and sale. Depending on the downstream application of the product, C.F.U. requirements could vary widely.

Viability isn’t enough, however — if a probiotic survives production and passage through the gastrointestinal tract but isn’t metabolically active once it reaches the large intestine, it will not achieve what it was produced to do. Optimizing vitality — the metabolic activity of the probiotic strain — ensures the probiotic does what it is supposed to do once it arrives at its intended site of action.

Vitality can easily be assessed by quantifying growth rate or production of target metabolites, such as enzymes or antimicrobial compounds. High-vitality strains experience robust growth and are extremely active metabolically. One of the most popular methods for measuring probiotic vitality, especially among dairy companies, is the iCinac instrument, which assesses acid production by lactic-acid bacteria and assesses the effects of temperature, media, and other variables on acid production — enabling producers to optimize fermentation conditions for maximum vitality.

Probiotic bacteria, unlike common laboratory strains must survive the entire production processes of fermentation, concentration, and storage. The drying stage of probiotic production, especially freeze drying, is a particularly stressful event for probiotic microorganisms.

Not all viability and vitality requirements are created equal

The approach that a probiotic producer takes to optimize viability and vitality will be strongly affected by the final form of their probiotic. As described above, most probiotics are ingested orally and must therefore survive passage through the mouth, stomach, and small intestine into the large intestine — but the trip looks very different depending on whether the probiotic is a food or beverage, pill, or powder. Producers must take into account unique considerations for each form to maximize viability and vitality.

Foods and beverages: Fermented foods and beverages are unique because the lactic acid bacteria used to produce these items partially digest the food during the fermentation process. Therefore, the consumer takes in not only probiotic bacterial strains, but also pre-digested food with more readily available bionutrients.

Because foods and beverages are not typically developed to target specific disease conditions, C.F.U. requirements are often much lower than for probiotic supplements and treatments. However, common additives to such products, such as fruits and other sweeteners, impact viability. Therefore, producers must carefully balance the addition of exogenous ingredients and ensure that the probiotic strains are robust to survive the addition of those ingredients.

Pills and Powders: Most supplements and probiotics developed to treat specific conditions are offered in the form of pills or powders. Unlike fermented food products, their activity is crucial, and therefore viability and vitality must be ensured through production, storage, and upon arrival in the large intestine.

Shelf life is typically longer than that of fermented foods, and therefore, such probiotics have longer vitality and viability requirements compared to foods and beverages. Additionally, because it can take some time for some metabolites to be released from the microbial cells, it is especially important that the strains remain active to ensure the metabolites are rapidly effective for the consumer.

Manufacture of pills and powders involves certain challenges for maintaining viability and vitality. For example, the process of pressing tablets significantly reduces viability, and this must be considered when targeting a certain C.F.U. in the final product. Powders must remain dry during storage so that the bacterial cells don’t become active prematurely and then die before reaching the consumer; the addition of desiccants lengthen shelf life by keeping moisture levels at a minimum.

While the majority of probiotics are intended for ingestion, there are several producers developing probiotics for external application, such as directly onto the skin. Depending on the country, safety regulations around topical antibiotics are more relaxed compared to those around orally ingested probiotics, so manufacturers can target higher C.F.U.s during production. And, because they are not ingested, they aren’t faced with the challenges posed by passage from mouth to stomach to intestines.

Nevertheless, it is tricky to develop mechanisms to preserve and optimize viability and vitality of the probiotic when mixed with cosmetic creams and liquids, which often have additives that are toxic to the microbial cells. Because of these challenges, many producers are opting for bioactive compounds derived from bacteria instead of the living organisms themselves.

Regardless of whether your probiotic is intended for ingestion or topical application, for general health support or to target a disease condition, viability and vitality are critical for your probiotic’s performance. We can help you optimize both through our expert scientific support and nutrients tailored for your probiotic strains.

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