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Newsreel: Probiotics

Video newsreel in which a news reader presents an item on probiotics.
Good evening. Tonight, we’re exploring the science behind probiotics.
Did you know that our bodies contain vastly more microbial cells than human ones? In fact, we play host to tens of thousands more microbes than the cells that make us us. These microbes are mostly found in our intestines and help us by digesting parts of our food that we can’t break down, such as fibre, producing important compounds we need to stay healthy, protecting us from pathogenic bacteria, and by stimulating our immune systems. So it’s vital that we look after our microbes and keep their environment balanced. The past decade has seen huge growth in the probiotic industry and its associated claims about the nutritional benefits of including live microbes in our diet.
But can these products really deliver the health benefits they promise? And do we need to take probiotic supplements to boost our digestive health like some companies would have us believe? While it’s true that fermented foods like yoghurts, kefir drinks, and more recently, kombucha teas contain live microorganisms, it’s not always true that they contain probiotics. The term probiotics refers to a select group of microorganisms which after ingestion, reach the human intestine and have been shown to have beneficial effects on human health when consumed in very large quantities– more than one million cells a day. So probiotics in our diet can help to keep our microbiota– that’s the beneficial microbes in our intestines– in a healthy balance.
So when we see a product that displays the word probiotic on its packaging, can we trust it? Well, the answer is yes because, in legal terms, the word probiotic may only be used if there is scientific data that supports the health claims and this is tightly regulated. However, these health claims are controversial, and new evidence suggests that probiotics may not work for everyone. Overall, the science of our microbiota promises to provide untold benefits in terms of human health, but unfortunately, there are still numerous challenges in harnessing this gut changing technology effectively for the population at large.

This mock news video introduces the final controversy you’ll be exploring on this course, probiotics: fad or superfood? They are a great example of re-discovering the health-giving properties of food our ancestors ate, but do they live up to the manufacturers’ promises?

Welcome to Week 3

We finish our course with an example of a controversy that may impact us very personally. Scientists tell us that a return to the types of foods our ancestors ate, containing large numbers of microorganisms, are good for our health. Food companies are making millions from selling us bacteria. But in the EU, regulations prevent them from advertising probiotics as health products. So are they good for us? Do they only work in specific circumstances? Are they beneficial for everyone, or just some? Why should we pay so much for microbes? Can we believe what the manufacturers say, or is it all a fad? This week we will look at the science of our microbiota, ensure we are precise about the terminology, hear the perspectives of different players in the industry and find out about the regulations that govern this sector of the food/health product industry. Will you end the week more convinced of their efficacy, or less?

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Engaging with Controversies in the Food System

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