Skip to Main Content

Food science researchers advance science behind gut health and prebiotics

When it comes to improving human gut health, approaches and the success of these approaches are based largely on an individual’s gut ecosystem: the bacteria present, its diversity and other factors. Therefore, trying to improve gut health through application of prebiotics or probiotics can have wildly variable results based on gut flora composition.

Bruce Hamaker, director of the Whistler Center for Carbohydrate Research and distinguished professor of food science, and Thaisa Moro Cantu-Jungles, his post-doctorate research associate, recently discovered a way to select prebiotic fibers that have the potential to provide improvement of gut health where everyone would benefit.

Their study, conducted in vitro, showed an increase in butyrate-producing bacteria with a selected fiber using this new approach. Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that supports many of the body’s essential functions from regulating the immune system to digestive health. In donors' gut flora where these bacteria were already present (nine out of ten), Cantu-Jungles and Hamaker observed a steady increase in butyrate producing bacteria and butyrate with the introduction of this fiber.

“Here we have targeted bacteria with a specific fiber, which we think is a significant advancement,” Hamaker said. “We’ve learned about these types of bacteria and what they look for in a fiber. The gut has a few trillion bacteria and roughly a thousand different species. But there is an ecological structure in the gut, just like in the wilds. And just like in nature, it’s a very competitive environment, so the high specificity of certain fibers is what helps target a precise part of this ecosystem.”

The results of this research have implications for human health beyond digestion and gut health.

“There is an opportunity to go into the symbiotic industry with this research-that’s where you ally a prebiotic with a probiotic. Usually it’s not very specific when this is done but with our discovery we can be very specific, we can find out which fiber will boost which bacteria, so they can be introduced together,” Cantu-Jungles said. “Beyond this, we can use gut bacteria to enhance human health, and perhaps even fight pathogens present in the gut.”

This research suggests that other highly specific fibers, when introduced, will boost other beneficial bacteria in the gut in a consistent way, which could have far-reaching implications from the treatment of diseases linked to inflammation to colon diseases.

“Over the years, prebiotics and probiotics have been advertised as improving gut health, but the results are usually marginal,” Hamaker said. “Now, with this research, there is a possibility to actually achieve the beneficial effects that have been advertised in nearly everyone and much more.”

The paper that outlines these discoveries is currently available online and forthcoming in volume 11, issue no. 3 of the mBio journal.

Featured Stories

A close-up of hands with blue nail polish planting sage next to the Native American Educational and Cultural Center
Purdue Agriculture’s Sloan Scholars

The Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership (SIGP) is an organization of 11 universities funded by...

Read More
Purdue's bell tower stands tall behind a foreground of purple petunias
Purdue agriculture professors named AAAS Fellows

Purdue College of Agriculture professors Songlin Fei and Tesfaye Mengiste have been named fellows...

Read More
almonds on a table with almond milk
Homemade nut-based dairy analogs raise questions about bacterial risks

Many consumers know the food safety risks of dairy products, eggs and raw meat. But they are less...

Read More
Students working in the Skidmore Lab inside Nelson Hall of Food Science.
CH4 Global partners with Food Entrepreneurship and Manufacturing Institute to combat methane emissions in the cattle industry

The Food Entrepreneurship and Manufacturing Institute (FEMI), housed within Purdue...

Read More
Purdue MANRRS pose with chapter of the year award at MANRRS38
Purdue MANRRS receives chapter of the year award at national conference, making history

For the first time since its founding in 1990, the Purdue University College of...

Read More
A bottle of Boiler Bee Honey sits on the edge of chrome table in Skidmore lab with two students cooking in labcoats and hairnets in the background.
The sweet (and spicy) taste of victory—National Honey Board funds a food science development competition at Purdue

In the past few years, specialty sauces like hot honey combined the classic warm, sweet feeling...

Read More
To Top