A New Probiotic Super-Formula?

Probiotic and prebiotic infant formula stimulates beneficial bacteria to help immunity

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Probiotics are food with live and active beneficial bacteria for the body that have been gaining popularity in the U.S. - and soon they may be in baby's formula.

Although babies who are breast-fed get the healthy bacteria they need through their mother's milk, formula fed babies usually miss out on this protective bacteria. A new study sponsored by formula maker Nestle reveals one way that might be able to change.

"Breastfeed your baby at least six months to give them beneficial intestinal bacteria."

A study led by Kelly Tappenden, a University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign professor of nutrition and gastrointestinal physiology, investigated what happened when both breast-fed and formula-fed babies were given two different types of foods that might help the build-up of beneficial bacteria in the system.

Babies need a bit of extra bacteria in their digestive system compared to a typical person because their systems are completely bacteria-free when they're born.

This sterile environment could be a field day for new microbes if the infant hasn't been able to build any kind of resistance to foreign germs.

"A strong, robust population of microbes in the gut provides colonization resistance, and pathogens can't invade and infect an infant who has that resistance as easily," Tappenden said.

So she tested giving babies both prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics are a type of carbohydrate that the body doesn't digest and which can stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system.

In the first study, on the effects of probiotics, researchers split 172 healthy six-week-old babies into two groups: formula-fed and breast-fed. Half the formula-fed infants received a control formula and the other half had a formula with a specific type of helpful bacteria called Bifidobacterium animalis subspecies lactis (Bb12).

They found that the babies getting the probiotics had higher levels of immunity chemicals directed against rotavirus and polio. The probiotic-formula-fed children also showed higher levels of immunity based on their stool samples.

In comparing formula-fed babies born vaginally with those born by cesarean section, the C-section infants showed greater immune system improvements.

Tappenden notes this latter finding is promising since babies born by C-section are already at a higher risk of infection since they missed out on exposure to the mother's bacteria in the birth canal on their way out.

"Babies delivered naturally develop a healthier population of gut bacteria as a result," Tappenden said. "Babies delivered by C-section enter a sterile environment, and their gut microbiota is quite different."

For the study on the impact of the prebiotics, 139 healthy babies were split into similar groups: breast-fed and formula-fed. Again, the formula babies were split in half to receive either a control formula or a formula with prebiotics called galacto- and fructo-oligosaccharides in it.

These oligosaccharides are found naturally in breast milk and help increase the amount of good bacteria in the digestive system.

Again, stool samples revealed that babies eating the formula with prebiotics had slightly more of the beneficial bacteria and less harmful bacteria in their guts.

The study did not discuss if or when the probiotic or prebiotic additions to the formula could be available for the general public or whether they would cost more than normal formula.

The articles appear in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. The studies were funded by Nestlé Infant Nutrition, which manufactures infant formulas.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 1, 2012
Last Updated:
March 5, 2012