China probiotics research results: Studies largely ‘foundational’ and lacking technical insights

By Tingmin Koe contact

- Last updated on GMT

Research has shown that probiotics could strengthen the intestinal mucosa barrier function, suppress the growth and adhesion of pathogens. ©Getty Images
Research has shown that probiotics could strengthen the intestinal mucosa barrier function, suppress the growth and adhesion of pathogens. ©Getty Images

Related tags: China, Probiotics, Research

There is a lot of foundational research on probiotics in China, but few studies on their technical application, a leading Chinese academic institute has ruled as the sector continues to boom in the country.

The Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFST) conducted an industry survey involving 149 organisations between March 23 and April 1.

A total of 724 surveys were received with CIFST revealing the results during a probiotics and health summit that it organised from August 19 to 21.

According to CIFST’s vice-chairman and secretary-general of the probiotics division, Shao Wei, probiotics research in China largely focused on the basics and there is a lack of research done on the industrial applications of probiotics.  

A search on the term ‘probiotics’ on Chinese language academic journals found that over 90% out of the 9,541 relevant articles were related to foundational theory research. Only about six percent is linked to the industrial application of probiotics.

Survey findings, on the other hand, showed that the stability of probiotic strains was the most common research topic when it comes to research on the production techniques of probiotics.

Almost three out of four (72.54%) research on probiotic production are linked to strains stability. 

Shao also said there was insufficient research done on probiotics and its effect on individuals with specific health needs.

To speed up the development of the probiotics industry, Shao stressed the need for more research on probiotics production techniques.

Probiotics is a fast-growing category in China. The CIFST said the category emerged strongly against the spread of COVID-19 as its sales volume exceeded 20% growth rate in Q1 2020.   

Top 10 research findings

A report on the top 10 probiotics research findings​ from China was compiled and unveiled by the CIFST during the probiotics and health summit.

The findings were made based on over 15,000 related scientific articles that the CIFST had found, as well as the industry survey results.  

The following is the summary of the top 10 findings.  

1. Probiotics and digestive tract health

Probiotics could modulate the gut microbiome, suppress the growth and adhesion of pathogens, and reduce inflammation.

In turn, it can prevent oral disease, stomach inflammation and ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

However, the mechanisms of different probiotic strains, effects as seen from clinical settings require evidence-based validation.

2. Probiotics and immune system

Research has shown that probiotics could strengthen the intestinal mucosa barrier function, suppress the growth and adhesion of pathogens. This in turn modulates the number of immune cells and stimulate the production of immune-boosting factors.

At the same time, this effect is dependent on the types of strains used. The selection of such strains and the strains’ ability in supporting the immune system require further research.

3. Probiotics and metabolic syndromes

Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota is a factor causing metabolic syndromes.

Of which, Lactobacillus ​and Bifidobacterium​ are the commonly used probiotic species for restoring the gut microbial balance, in turn delaying the development of metabolic syndromes.

At present, most of the research are focused on how probiotics can prevent the onset of metabolic diseases, but there is insufficient research on the mechanisms.

This could be because the factors leading to metabolic syndromes are complex and that different results are seen from different probiotic strains.

4. Probiotics and the gut-axis

Aside from the increasingly well-known gut-brain axis, there is also a relationship between the gut and other body organs, including lungs, liver, kidney, muscles, and bones.

This gut-axis could be the new target for drug development. In addition, probiotics can also impact the function of different organs and bring health benefits. 

Similarly, there is a need to find out more about the mechanisms behind probiotics and its impact on the function of different organs.

5. Probiotics selection and functionality

The effectiveness of probiotics is impacted by its source, the diet, age, gender of the host and other factors.

As different parts of China has a tradition in making fermented foods, these are important resources for selecting probiotic strains with specific functions.

Using genotyping, phenotyping, together with multi-omics as methods for strains selection, the country would be able to develop probiotics for different individuals.

6. Probiotics and diet

There could be more research in the links between food, probiotics, and metabolism, said the report.

This is because different dietary patterns and food intake will lead to varying impact on probiotics.

For instance, dietary fibre and botanicals can stimulate the colonisation of probiotics in the gut.

7. Probiotics and postbiotics

Postbiotics refer to the metabolic waste of probiotics and can strengthen the immune system, protect the intestinal mucosa barrier, and modulate the gut microbiome.

At present, due to the limitations of research techniques, most of the research are focusing on proteins and polysaccharides as postbiotics candidates.

The ability to isolate metabolic waste from probiotics and conduct functionality tests will determine whether the postbiotic market could grow in market size.

8. Probiotics and novel technologies

A range of techniques could be used to further find out the mechanisms of probiotics, including whole genome sequencing, single cell sequencing, metagenomics, transcriptome, proteomics, and metabolomics, said the report.

These techniques can also help support the development of a new generation of probiotics.

At the industrial level, new techniques for protecting, drying, delivering, and testing of probiotics have been developed.

Examples include coming out with spores to protect the probiotics and new delivery systems to send probiotics into the gut.

9. New generation of probiotics

A new generation of probiotics, such as Akkermansia muciniphila ​and other strains have the ability to strengthen the intestinal mucosal barrier function and the potential to alleviate metabolic diseases.

In the future, there is a need to conduct functionality and safety tests on the new generation of probiotics, and also coming out with regulatory frameworks to regulate their use

10.  Probiotics and consumption safety

Probiotics are mostly isolated from traditional fermented foods or the gut of healthy individuals, and do not pose significant risk during safety assessments.

At present, the most commonly used strains are Lactobacillus ​and Bifidobacterium. ​Due to their long history of use in food, they are safer for consumption.

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