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14 Nov 2017
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. Some bacteria now commonly recognised as probiotics, were discovered even before this, but were not then known to potentially have health benefits - see our timeline below for more information.
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 the common links between their extraordinary age and how their health contributed to the latter. Metchnikoff discovered that the villagers living in the Caucasus Mountains were drinking a fermented yoghurt drink on a daily basis, his studies found that a probiotic called Lactobacillus bulgaricus improved their health and may have helped the longevity of their lives.
Metchnikoff's pioneering research prompted him and others to look further into probiotics, leading scientists to discover many types of probiotics such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Saccharomyces boulardii, and Bifidobacterium infantis; all of which have various properties and can have different effects on the body.
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!
The word “probiotic” originates from the Latin3, meaning “for life”, though there are also roots in Greek, from bios meaning "lively" or "fit for life".
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.
Interestingly, your humble bowl of cereal also has a surprisingly historical link to probiotics. John Harvey Kellogg, co-founder of the nation’s favourite breakfast cereal brands, was one of the early pioneers of both prebiotics and probiotics. He was also a vegetarian, missionary, surgeon and keen advocate for fermented foods including yoghurt, known for its beneficial probiotic properties. Who knew?
We are still in the infancy of probiotic history and there is lots more still to be discovered about these mega microbes.