Science has revealed that the human body hosts ten times more microorganisms than the tissue cells it has; microorganisms, that account for about 2.5 percent of our body weight. Among these there are around 500 types of bacteria living in our digestive tract that help us in maintaining good health, especially in infants and young children who are more prone to infections, digestive problems and allergies.
Breast milk which is the primary source of nutrition for infants contains components that both actively and passively modify the immune system of an infant. One such component is oligosaccharides. After carbohydrates (lactose) and fats, oligosaccharides are the third largest component of breast milk. The concentration of oligosaccharides in breast milk exceeds that of even proteins thereby drawing attention of scientists across the world. These oligosaccharides are also known as Prebiotics.
Prebiotics are non-digestible fibres which promote growth of healthy bacteria (probiotics) in the intestine. Naturally one can obtain prebiotics from certain whole cereals, pulses, fruits and vegetables. This is because some of these foods contain complex carbohydrates like fiber and resistant starch which is not digested easily. The body passes it through the digestive system undigested to convert this into food for the bacteria and other microbes. The common available foods which have prebiotics are banana, chicory, onion, garlic, leeks etc. Cow and buffalo milk do not have prebiotic oligosaccharides which are present in mother’s milk.
Prebiotics are known for their health benefits:
- It helps in the gut to increase the number of healthy bacteria, aid digestion and enhance the production of valuable vitamins.
- Good bacteria perform a major role in regulating the immune system, preventing the growth of disease-causing bacteria.
- Prebiotics also help in keeping the body’s mineral and electrolyte levels in balance which then indirectly helps in keeping the blood pressure in check. They also help in maintaining healthy hormone levels which therefore keeps our gut healthy and helps in mood regulation.
- Daily intake of prebiotics also helps in reducing glycation which is the cause of free increased radicals in the body. Therefore, it helps in fighting cardiovascular diseases.
From infants to adults, intake of prebiotics is a must. A healthy digestive system which includes good gut health and immune system is essential for all ages. Newborn babies cannot easily consume natural sources of prebiotics like onions, garlic or banana, and hence breast milk is essential for them.
Understanding the positive effects of oligosaccharides on gut health in infants, researchers have developed a non-human milk oligosaccharide as an alternative. Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), polydextrose, inulin and their mixtures are the most common prebiotics that have been developed for infants. Among these the most studied prebiotic is a combination of Galacto-oligosaccharides and Fructo-oligosaccharides (GOS & FOS).
In case of insufficient breast milk, baby formula that contains GOS/ FOS (oligosaccharides) should be considered. Insufficient beneficial bacteria in infants make them prone to common gut infections.
There are over 30 clinical studies and 55 peer reviewed publications on clinical benefits of GOS/FOS. The latest studies show clinical benefits in terms of lesser incidence of diarhhoea, upper respiratory tract infections, lesser use of antibiotics, lesser allergies and softer stools. Moreover, there are no side effects of prebiotics and they are considered safe for term as well as preterm infants by US FDA and European Food Safety Authortiy (EFSA). Ultimately prebiotics tell us the golden old rule “Prevention is better than Cure” and are useful tool in making every child a healthy child. And as it is said, a healthy child is a happy child!