How can we describe the members of the “biotics” family?

Probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics—the “biotics” family has several different member groups and they all have different descriptions and definitions. While the terms are present in thousands of scientific publications, in the media and in countless advertisements, they are not always used appropriately. So let’s take a closer look at each family member.


The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, ISAPP, defines probiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a benefit to the health of the host”, and two of the best known are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Did you know that that definition from ISAPP differs from the one published by FAO in 2001 by only two commas and replacing a “which” with a “that”? Keep reading to find out how important such a change can be!


The latest information we have about synbiotics is that they are not just the mere combination of prebiotics and probiotics. In fact, the new definition of a synbiotic describes it as “a mixture containing living microorganisms and substrate(s) used selectively by host microorganisms that confers a benefit to the health of the host.”


Prebiotics are foods for the beneficial gut bacteria that live in and outside our gut. Unlike probiotics and synbiotics, which are living components, prebiotics (and postbiotics, described below), are made up of inert components. So why are they good for our health? Prebiotics can play a role in improving intestinal transit, thus contributing to reducing constipation or diarrhea and improving certain disorders associated with irritable bowel syndrome.


In 2021, a panel composed of scientists from around the world agreed to define postbiotics as “a preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers health benefit on the host.” While the field is still in its infancy, some studies have shown that the potential health benefits of postbiotics include improving digestive discomfort and preventing common infectious diseases such as acute gastroenteritis.


The future is promising for tools that improve health by acting on the gut microbiota

Just as each individual is unique, so is our internal microbial ecosystem. As such, there is increased interest among scientists in exploring personalized ways to care for gut health. And part of those efforts is focused on getting to know more about the “biotic” family and its effects on overall health.

In this interview on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of GMFH, Dr. Mary Ellen Sanders, a consultant in the science of probiotics and a member of the GMFH Board of Experts, tells us a little more about the wonderful world of these microorganisms and why a simple comma is much more than it seems.

Have you seen our previous expert interviews? If not, make sure you don’t miss them!

Stay tuned for upcoming video interviews with members of the GMFH Board of Experts and don’t forget to join the conversation on Twitter (Twitter @GMFHx, Twitter @GutmicrobiotaWW) using #GMFH10years.