LAS VEGAS — Since the start of the century, ingredient suppliers have stressed the importance of keeping probiotic strains alive as they go through processing steps and then on through the consumers’ digestive systems. Now that consumers and industry have gained some understanding of probiotics and prebiotics, which feed probiotics in the gut, a new term may cause confusion.

Postbiotics are heat-treated probiotics. Whereas probiotics need to stay alive, postbiotics are not alive.

“Now they’re dead, but they work,” said Alexis Collins, director of product and brand strategy for Stratum Nutrition. "They work."

She was part of a panel discussing the microbiome on Nov. 1 at SupplySide West in Las Vegas

Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit, according to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP). Prebiotics serve as food for beneficial microbes/probiotics in the body.

A panel for the ISAPP recently defined a postbiotic as a “preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host.”

The three terms need to be clarified to consumers and industry, said George Paraskevakos, a member of the panel and executive director of the International Probiotics Association.

“We need to clarify some things because we are going to shoot ourselves in the foot,” Paraskevakos said. “We just continue running down the path of marketing everything biotic without carving out what these things mean.”

Michael Hartman, vice president of R&D for Plexus Worldwide, said he will spend plenty of time explaining postbiotics to his customers.

“For years and years, we’ve communicated the importance of stability, the importance of cfus (colony-forming units), the time of expiration,” Hartman said. “Now we’re introducing postbiotic that is a heat-treated probiotic.”

Postbiotics are measured in mg, not cfus, he said. They do not need refrigerating, and the packaging is different when compared to probiotics.

“So all of that goes into communication where it has similar benefits, but how it achieves those benefits is different,” Hartman said. “So it really just starts up front with that communication.”

Collins said many of her friends are in a prime demographic for supplement buyers: women over age 40 buying for their families and themselves.

When she brings up postbiotics…

“Their eyes just glaze,” she said. “There’s a long way to go as far as educating consumers.”

The panel also discussed how to deliver prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics in foods and beverages. The panelists agreed “pill fatigue” is real, leading consumers to opt for gummies instead.

Sachets offer good stability because formulators may control moisture, heat and oxygen, Hartman said, adding ready-to-drink beverages with microbiome benefits are rising in popularity as well.

“We’ve really seen a lot of functional foods come out, primarily in the prebiotic space because of the fiber component,” he said.

Spore-forming probiotic strains survive in acidified beverages and kombucha, said Anurag Pande, vice president of scientific affairs for Sabinsa Group. Products for children are becoming more popular, too, Paraskevakos said.

Prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics all have shown beneficial effects on gut health and the microbiome. Scientific studies continue to link a healthy microbiome to health in areas such as immunity.

Hartman said science is “scratching the surface” on knowledge of the microbiome. He gave the analogy of standing in a parking lot outside a football stadium. You know a game is being played because you hear the crowd roar and boo, but you have no idea what plays are being run.

“That’s kind of what I feel like with the gut microbiome,” he said. “We have an idea about what’s going on from a standing-in-the-parking-lot level, but we don’t actually know what’s going on in the field of play. We know that diversity is good. We know alpha diversity, beta diversity. We know there are certain things you want to avoid in your gut, certain pathogens. Beyond that, we’re still very, very naïve.”