The History of Probiotics

Samuel Ter Haar Lifestyle Writer

Probiotics, as we know them, began their journey over a century ago when they were discovered by Russian scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Elie Metchnikoff of the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Whilst some bacteria had been discovered before this time, the strains found were not thought to potentially have health benefits, and thus the concept of 'probiotics' or 'friendly bacteria' had not been conceived earlier.

Find out more about probiotics in the following FAQ: What are probiotics?

Elie Metchnikoff

In 1907, whilst working in Bulgaria, Metchnikoff1 was intrigued as to why certain inhabitants of the Bulgarian population lived much longer than others. He particularly focused his study on centenarians, people who've lived past the age of 100. He researched possible links between their extraordinary age and their lifestyle

What Metchnikoff discovered was that the villagers living in the Caucasus Mountains were drinking a fermented yoghurt drink on a daily basis. His studies into the drink found that it contained a probiotic called Lactobacillus bulgaricus which seemingly improved their health and increased their lifespan.

Metchnikoff's pioneering research prompted him and others to look further into probiotics, and lead scientists to discover and classify many different types (or species) of probiotics. These included the (now) well-known species of: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Saccharomyces boulardii, and Bifidobacterium infantis; all of which have various properties that have different effects on the body. Read more about the importance of different strains

Saccharomyces boulardii can be found in Optibac Probiotics Saccharomyces Boulardii.

Optibac Saccharomyces boulardii
Saccharomyces Boulardii was one of the first discovered probiotic yeast strains

Minoru Shirota

One of these scientists was Japanese microbiologist, Minoru Shirota2, who developed a new strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus casei Shirota. Shirota believed that the production of lactic acid in the gut could destroy the bad bacteria in the intestines and improve the consumer’s health and longevity in life. You may or may not have heard of Shirota, but the chances are that you’ve heard of his creation: the yoghurt probiotic drink Yakult, one of the first commercially available probiotics!. 

Fun Fact #1: Definition

The word “probiotic” originates from the Latin3, meaning “for life”, although there are also links to the Greek language, with bios meaning "lively" or "fit for life".

Fun Fact #2: Fermented Foods

Before the popular consumption of probiotics, many nations ate fermented foods as part of a balanced diet (or indeed, still do!). Fermented foods such as tempeh, miso, sauerkraut and yoghurt have been eaten for generations for a number of reasons (nutrition, and a unique taste for example). These foods are thought to be high in essential amino acids, sodium, fibre and calcium and contribute to a balanced lifestyle.

We love fermented foods as nutritious additions to our diets and a great source of live cultures, but as the strength and strains of the live cultures they contain are not easy to determine, they can't be directly compared to probiotic supplements. Find out more at The Food Myth.

Fun Fact #3: Breakfast

You may be interested to learn that one of your breakfast foods is part of the history of probiotics, with a link all the way back to biblical times! Pliny the Elder, was recommending fermented milk beverages for gut health in the first century AD. There are many different types of fermented milk products and you can read more about them and how they are beneficial in this article: Probiotic supplements vs. Yoghurts

We believe that probiotics and probiotic research are still in their infancy, and feel certain that there is lots more still to be discovered about these mega microbes, and the positive impacts that they can have on our health.

We are also excited to see where the research on prebiotics leads and what impact this has on our understanding of their role in the gut.

If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in the following articles:

How do probiotics work?

Probiotic research - is it all equal?

Healthcare professionals can read more about Lactobacillus casei Shirota on the Probiotics Database