Probiotics: definition, scope and mechanisms of action

Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2016 Feb;30(1):17-25. doi: 10.1016/j.bpg.2015.12.001. Epub 2015 Dec 19.


For a subject area of science, medicine and commerce to be so recently defined and investigated, few can compare to probiotics for the controversy they have incited. Barely a paper is published without the use of a different definition, or challenging the most used one, or proposing a different nuance of it. The situation has become even more surreal with the European Food and Safety Authority banning the word probiotic for use on labels. The reiteration of the FAO/WHO definition by the world's leading group of probiotic experts, should provide relative consistency in the near future, but what are the causes of these aberrations? This review will discuss the rationale for the definition, and the scope of the subject area and why alternatives emerge. While mechanisms of action are not widely proven, in vitro and some in vivo experiments support several. Ultimately, the goal of any field or product is to be understood by lay people and experts alike. Probiotics have come a long way in 100 years since Metchnikoff and 10 years since their globalization, but their evolution is far from over.

Keywords: Guidelines; Mechanisms; Probiotics; Terminology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome / physiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / microbiology*
  • Guidelines as Topic
  • Humans
  • Probiotics*
  • Terminology as Topic*