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Pronounced /ˌprəʊbʌɪˈɒtɪk/Help with pronunciation

This word has been around since the beginning of the nineties, but has only slowly started to appear outside technical contexts. It refers to the use of microorganisms in a positive way to benefit health. They are usually consumed in specially designed foods that are variously called nutraceuticals, functional foods or FoSHUs (“Foods for Specified Health Uses”). An example is the way some people ingest bacteria in live yoghurt to enhance their intestinal flora and so aid digestion. Such harmless bacteria colonies are also being introduced into various environments to take up available resources and prevent harmful ones multiplying, a technique known as competitive exclusion. For example, a recent proposal to maintain healthy teeth involves populating the mouth with harmless bacteria that prevent those which cause decay from gaining a hold. A similar technique has been used in fish farming to prevent bacteria that cause disease from attacking stocks. Probiotic is not entirely new, as it has appeared on occasion in the past as another word for prebiotic, but that sense seems to be obsolete.

The value of “competitive exclusion” is becoming widely accepted, and [one] company is now marketing a product that farmers can use to ensure the development of a protective flora of microbes in their chickens’ intestines ... Several so-called probiotics, consisting of individual strains of lactobacilli, are now available for this purpose.

Bernard Dixon, Power Unseen, 1994

Probiotics have been reported to enhance the digestion and absorption of protein, fat, calcium and phosphorus. They produce their own lactase and may help overcome lactose intolerance.

Pharmacy Post, May 1997

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Page created 30 May 1998; Last updated 21 Nov 1998