Dr. Yeo Siok Koon shares how prebiotics and probiotics can affect your health for the better when consumed adequately.
As the world faces a global health crisis and our attention is mainly focusing on combating COVID-19, other communicable and non-communicable diseases are also rising. So what should we do to build a strong immune system and combat any disease?
Senior lecturer from the School of Biosciences, Dr. Yeo Siok Koon shares how her research, which incorporates probiotics and prebiotics into food, will allow us to feed the community of today and tomorrow with food beneficial to our immune systems.
Q: What are your research projects about and how would they impact the public?
A: As society evolves over time, our food system has also evolved into a global system of immense size and complexity. So, researching ways on advancing the science of food to ensure a safe, abundant, and healthy food supply for the community becomes extremely important.
I’m currently working on ways to enhance the antimicrobial activity of probiotics and the development of probiotics products for various therapeutic effects. This allows the public to have more variety of food with functional properties and, at the same time, would be acceptable in terms of flavour, odour, appearance, and mouthfeel of a food product (also known as the organoleptic properties).
In the long run, this promotes and ensures a healthy lifestyle while promoting well-being for all ages, which is in line with Goal 3 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs).
Aside from that, did you know that an estimated 1/3 of all food produced, equivalent to 1.3 billion tons and around USD400 billion, ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers on a yearly basis? I thought it'd be good if we could repurpose this waste into something useful for us.
My other research focuses on answering this by converting fruit waste into prebiotic ingredients that would benefit gastrointestinal health. We also found that after conversion, the waste could potentially serve as an ingredient to enhance the physical properties of food. This is in line with the UN’s SDG 12 to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Hopefully, this research will reverse the current trends and change our consumption and production patterns towards a more sustainable future.
Q: What are some of the developments of these research projects so far?
A: We’ve found a way to enhance the antimicrobial activity of the probiotics where such activity may alleviate its benefits at the targeted sites — specifically for oral and throat health. Oftentimes when we’ve dental caries or even bad breath, it’s due to the imbalance of microflora in our oral cavity. When we introduce more probiotics into these oral cavities, it'd then kill the bacteria that cause dental caries and bad breath.
One of my Master’s students, who has already graduated, worked on an oral strip containing probiotics that could help modulate oral health. For this project, we collaborated with an academic, from a different private university, who’s an expert in dental and oral health.
Another project that my current Master’s student is working on is a frozen dessert for sore throat. A lot of times when we've a sore throat, it’s normal that we don’t feel like eating anything unless it’s cold and soothing as it’s hard to swallow. Even water may hurt! We thought that swallowing pills might not be something a person with a sore throat would like so we decided to incorporate live probiotics culture into the frozen dessert.
We studied the physical and chemical properties of the developed probiotics product and evaluated the stability of probiotics to exert antimicrobial activity against sore throat causative agents in the frozen dessert. For this project, we also worked with another researcher, from a different private university, who focuses on bioinformatics. We actually managed to develop a prototype and the resultant product was highly acceptable as determined by our sensory evaluation with a consumer panellist.
Q: What are you looking to accomplish from this project?
A: Research is an ongoing process journey so I’ll definitely still continue research on prebiotics and probiotics. For our products on oral health, I hope that they’ll be commercialised so it can help the community at large.
As for my future project, my mother was diagnosed with diabetes many years back and I'd gestational diabetes during my pregnancy. From these experiences, I understand the dilemma and hardship of having to control a strict diet and being on medication for one's whole life. Therefore, I’ve started a project to discover a new solution for diabetic or prediabetics patients by utilising probiotics.
Q: What’s the importance of knowing about prebiotics and probiotics and how do we start educating ourselves about them?
A: We see a lot of products stating that they’ve probiotics in them but we need to know if it’s live culture or not.
If the labelling doesn’t state how many colony-forming units (CFU) there are — which is the number of cells in the product, it could mean that they’re now dead cells, due to certain treatments or processing, and might not give us the beneficial effects that live probiotics would give. So, the public should learn how to read the labels for this information.
Another thing is that consumption of this isn’t a matter of the more, the merrier when consuming these products. Yes, we take it for health purposes but the variation of probiotics in a particular product may not necessarily be better if there’s more.
As the world is facing a health crisis, consumers tend to pump themselves with health-promoting products especially those with immune-modulatory effects such as probiotics and prebiotics.
But in actuality, every single prebiotic and probiotic has its beneficial effect when consumed in sufficient amount. So the key to better health is consumed in adequate amounts but not in excess. If you take too much, at the end of the day, it could lead to conditions like diarrhea and flatulence. Remember, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. We need to eat in moderation — even if the particular thing is generally good for us.
We can make consumers more aware by focusing on educating consumers and the community. I remember seeing supermarkets and hypermarkets running campaigns about nutrition and food labelling. This is actually a good drive for consumers to know what they’re eating and why they should eat healthily.
Q: What inspired you to conduct your research on probiotics and prebiotics?
A: I was working with microbiology ever since my First Year Project during my degree. When we had to select a title then, most of the chemistry-based ones were taken up so I was left with a few microbiology topics — I was actually really happy because I really love microbiology, and subsequently did a whole year of research on pathogens or bad bacteria. Since then I’ve developed a more in-depth love for microbiology.
Since young, many of us love to consume cultured drinks that come in small bottles but we’ve heard many myths about it. These myths cause dilemmas to many Asian parents regarding the balance between the beneficial effect of live culture consumption and the bad effects. This triggered me to unravel the myth about probiotics and explore further into this beneficial microorganism during my PhD.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges this industry will face in the next 5 years and how can we be ready for it?
A: The food industry is a fast and ever-changing industry, especially as we enter into Industry Revolution 4.0. With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the global community, we see that consumption and food purchasing behaviour has also changed tremendously over the last few years.
More new technology and innovation need to be adapted and implemented to cater to such change. One of the biggest challenges is how we prepare our current graduates for the future. We as educators need to keep ourselves updated with current research and share them with our students.
Q: How can students be ready for future research projects and what’s your advice to them?
A: During the students’ final year projects, they’ll learn about research skills and if the data obtained is plausible, we could publish the data. This would help them gain writing skills and nurture their passion for research where they can continue on their journey in the field of research if they’re interested.
To my current and future students, I hope they won’t give up that easily in their research journey. A lot of the times when they’ve negative results, don’t get certain data, or in certain conditions like what we’re in now (due to pandemic) where we’re unable to access the lab facilities, they’d feel unmotivated and want to give up.
Even for me, research is never a smooth sailing process. There were times when we'd to work really hard but end up with no data or the results obtained weren’t as expected. We can only stay positive and be strong and determined to overcome this. That’s something that I constantly remind my students — to stay positive and find ways to troubleshoot. Only with such an attitude can we discover new ideas and move on.
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