Human milk is the gold standard for infant nutrition, as it contains bioactive compounds that help support the development of the infant gut microbiota and immune system. However, for a variety of reasons, not all infants can be exclusively breastfed.

“The Biotics Family in Early Life,” is an essential knowledge briefing from Wiley. The book discusses how the use of dietary “biotics” can help improve infant health outcomes and reduce the risk of disease in later life.

Biotics are “nutritionally active components that, when consumed, can confer a health benefit on the host.” The book opens by giving an excellent overview of the physiology of the infant gut and the link between immune health and gut health. Further chapters cover each of the different types of ‘biotics’ in detail, with a focus on how each may benefit infant health.

After introducing the reader to some background topics, the authors provide a wealth of information on prebiotics, which are substrates that are selectively utilized by host microorganisms, and probiotics, which are the live microorganisms themselves.

Naturally present in breast milk, prebiotics (also called oligosaccharides) may help reduce the risk of infection in infants. Prebiotics have been shown in scientific studies to promote the growth of beneficial Bifidobacteria in the infant gut; and improve gut motility, gastric emptying, and stool softness. When breastfeeding is not possible, these the prebiotic oligosaccharides can be added to infant formulas to better mimic the composition of breast milk and promote the growth of beneficial intestinal microorganisms.

While the field of postbiotics in food and infant formula is still emerging, research shows that they have the potential to improve digestive symptoms in infants

Probiotics, like prebiotics, are also beneficial for infant health. The benefits of probiotics differ from one bacterial strain to another, but generally include protection against infections, regulation of the immune system, and synthesis of nutritional elements such as vitamins. However, compared to prebiotics, their underlying mechanisms of action are not as fully understood.

Synbiotics are a category of biotics that combine probiotics and prebiotics together in food or dietary supplements. While probiotic bacteria typically do not colonize the gut, prebiotics administered together with probiotics can help improve the survival of probiotics during their transit through the upper intestinal tract, encourage their growth, and activate their metabolism. Overall, the administration of synbiotics may enhance benefits already seen with prebiotic and probiotic administration alone. 

Finally, the book closes by providing information on the lesser-known postbiotics, which are molecules that are produced by bacteria as a result of fermentation. Bacteria act as ‘microbial factories,’ producing health-promoting molecules that enrich food. The key differentiating factor of postbiotics is that the bacteria need not be consumed alive. While the field of postbiotics in food and infant formula is still emerging, research shows that they have the potential to improve digestive symptoms in infants.

“The Biotics Family in Early Life” is an excellent and well-referenced resource for those wanting to learn more about the gut, the immune system, and the effect of biotics on infant health outcomes. When breastfeeding is not an option, pre-, pro-, syn- and postbiotics offer promising alternatives that mimic human milk functionality and support immunity.

Reference: The Biotics Family in Early Life. Edited by Seppo Salminen, Hania Szajewska, and Jan Knol. vol. 4, Wiley, 2019.