Probiotics are everywhere. You can buy probiotic foods, drinks, and supplements in any health food store. As more and more benefits are becoming known, they are increasing in popularity as a daily part of a healthy diet. Although the use of beneficial microorganisms for health has been around for centuries, the actual idea is surprisingly new in the scientific world. Even the word “probiotic” has not been around long! I was intrigued to discover the actual history of probiotics, and how research has changed what we know about them. Read on for nine facts about fermented foods and probiotics!
1. Fermentation of food was originally used as a form of preservation
Long before anyone could even conceive of a tiny microscopic life form living in their food, people on earth discovered that fermentation was a useful form of food preservation. In an ancient world where refrigerators were unfathomable, this was extraordinarily useful for people; fermentation as food preservation dates back to 6,000 B.C. (3). Fermentation was the earliest form of probiotics in food.
2. Sour milk is mentioned in the bible
Cultured dairy is mentioned twice in the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 7, when prophesying the birth of Jesus, the prophet writes “He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” (v.15) and again “And because of the abundance of the milk they give, there will be curds to eat. All who remain in the land will eat curds and honey” (v.22). Sour milk is also mentioned in Genesis, Judges, Deuteronomy, Job, and 2 Samuel.
3. Milk kefir was created by shepherds in the near east
Shepherds in the caucasus mountains (near the countries of Georgia and Russia) would mix kefir grains with milk to create a fermented milk beverage they carried around in pouches (4). Although kefir was confined to this region for many years, it was eventually noticed that people in this area lived past 100 years old and kefir was soon taken to Russia (5).
4. Beneficial bacteria in children was one of the first probiotic discoveries
At the Pasteur Institute in France 1899, Henry Tissier, a pediatrician, discovered that children with diarrhea had a lack of a Y shaped bacterium in their stool. In contrast, healthy children had an abundance of this microorganism. Tissier called this the bifidus bacteria, and it is now known as the Bifidobacterium spps. (2).
5. Poor peasants led to the original use probiotics as a health aid
Near the beginning of the 20th century, poor peasants in a Bulgarian region who drank sour milk daily lived longer, and people noticed (1). A Russian scientist, Elie Metchnikoff, began to explore the idea that fermented dairy could provide health benefits. He hypothesized that it was a lactic acid forming bacterium responsible for the increased lifespan seen in the peasants (2).
6. Elie Metchnikoff is the father of probiotics
Elie Metchnikoff (born in 1845) is known as the father of probiotics (5). As director of the Pasteur Institute, Metchnikoff believed that humans were not living their full life cycle because bad bacteria were degrading their bodies and causing them to die early (1). In 1907, he hypothesized that lactic acid forming bacteria could prolong life and heal the gut (2). He thought the bacterium Lactobacillus bulgaricus was responsible, although we know now that Lactobacillus acidophilus is much more useful as a probiotic (1). Metchnikoff created a sour milk drink called “La Ferment” that he drank daily (5) until he died at the age of 71.
7. Dannon yogurt started out as a digestive aid
In Barcelona in 1919, a Spanish businessman named Isaac Carasso started the “Danone” company. Based on the work of Metchnikoff, he sold probiotic rich yogurt in pharmacies for digestive health use (5). The yogurt super company Dannon became the product of this business venture.
8. The actual term probiotics is fairly new
Live bacteria contributing health benefits was an idea nearly abandoned by the Western world from Metchnikoff’s death until 1965, partially due to the fact that his ideas were never embraced by modern medicine at the time. Also, in 1928 when Alexander Fleming accidently discovered penicillin, the antibiotic era began and since then bacteria have mostly been known for the harm they cause, not the benefits they provide. In 1965 the term “probiotic” was used, but not to describe microorganisms. In 1989, “probiotic” was finally used to describe a product containing live, beneficial microorganisms (2).
9. True probiotics today should follow a set of guidelines
In 2001 the World Health Organization released the description “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host” (2) to describe probiotics. Probiotics as we now know them exist in food, drink, and pill form, but they are not carefully regulated. To properly receive the benefits, it is important to choose a high quality probiotic supplement. The World Health Organization states that probiotic supplements must follow these guidelines to be a true probiotic:
- Probiotic organisms must be living
- Probiotic supplements must identify the organism(s) to species level
- Probiotic supplements must have proven safety data
- Probiotic supplements must show physiological benefits when using a defined viable count of probiotics in a defined delivery vehicle (food, capsule) in a defined patient population, controlled by a placebo and/or standard therapy option if the end outcome is treating a disease. (2)
Probiotics have a long history on this planet of use as a health aid. According to the people who lived before us, they can offer increased longevity and digestive health benefits. Other benefits of probiotics continue to be discovered as more research is done and probiotics become part of mainstream medicine. I believe that bacteria and humans were originally created to live together in a mutually beneficial relationship and probiotics play a part in increasing health and quality of life.