When it comes to probiotics, like any other additive active at the gut level, it would be rather imprudent to make generic assumptions. Under the umbrella term of probiotics, there is a plethora of very distinct products that differ not only in price but, most importantly, in effectiveness. So, all I can offer is my own field experiences as an international consulting nutritionist and, of course, my personal interpretation of available literature, be it research reports, marketing material or technical reports.
Consulting about probiotics
When probiotics first appeared in the market, they left a very bad aftertaste, as they were very unstable under pelleting conditions and gave widely variable results in animal tests. As a result, like myself, most nutritionists remained skeptical; it is an old axiom among nutritionists that we stay away from any product with an unclear background, as this can affect the profitability of our work.
Next, I was involved in the testing of a new-generation probiotic, and to my disbelief it worked even in the presence of antibiotics and other gut microflora modulating agents (zinc oxide and copper sulphate at pharmacological levels). I have used the specific product for several years and it is part of my "secret" recipe for certain formulas.
But, when it comes to general consulting about probiotics, I offer the following points for consideration, not all of which are valid in all circumstances:
- Probiotics appear to work better in broilers and young piglets, perhaps because there is sufficient scope there with an immature gut system still under development.
- Heat-resistant products are paramount if feed is going to be pelleted, extruded, or heated in any other way. Not all products are equally resistant to high temperatures.
- Each product is unique and requires careful testing as certain ingredients in a given formula might work against its success. So, probiotics should not be considered as add-on additives, but rather as part of the whole formula.
- A probiotic that works in one farm may be completely ineffective in another one, obviously because of a different microflora ecosystem. This is true for most additives that target gut microflora.
From a recent poll conducted by WATT Global Media among nutrition professionals from an international background, it appears probiotics enjoy the first place in preference when it comes to replacing antibiotics. Although such research evidence to support the above notion remains equivocal, at best, a very successful marketing campaign, and a very clever name, all provide probiotics with a good share of the antibiotic-free feed market.
Probiotics provide a certain strain of microbes that, if successfully established, it can work against possible pathogens, by competing with them for nutrients and colonization locations. The same is true, of course, for microbes already present in the gut. In fact, today there is a legitimate debate whether it is best to introduce a powerful yet alien microorganism (probiotics) against providing support to the existing beneficial microorganisms (gut microflora).
In my experience, in most cases where probiotics have failed to provide a positive result, and I am considering here only products that I know personally to be effective, the problem is sufficient support for the establishment of the incoming microorganism. Not only the feed formulation should be devoid of ingredients that can kill or neutralize probiotics, but there should be prior thought in providing this new microorganism with amble and suitable food. Here, functional fibers play a very important role that can be complimentary to the existing fiber mix in the cereals and vegetable protein sources in any given formula.
So, from my perspective, probiotics should not be used in a blanket-application mode, but they can definitely play a significant role under certain conditions. If they fail is because they are considered as an add-on ingredient instead of as part of a comprehensive gut health strategy that is harmonious with the overall formulation.