Protective nutrients benefit health in various ways beyond their conventionally established nutrient function such as by enhancing immune function, promoting gastrointestinal integrity, impacting metabolism, and preventing disease. Certain of these key nutrients have taken center stage as emerging research is showing that they can play a significant role throughout the life span. Study of an infants’ first natural nutrition, breast milk, has led to an improved understanding of how different compounds can beneficially effect physiological processes and act as protective nutrients. Probiotics, or “healthy bacteria,” are living microorganisms that confer a benefit when consumed in sufficient quantities. For example, certain strains help maintain the balance of the intestinal microbiota, a complex ecosystem that can be influenced by many factors such as stress, antibiotics, and diet. Research suggests that, when the intestinal microbiota is unbalanced, overall health may be affected. Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates that can be used as an energy source by certain probiotics, thereby helping them grow and flourish to further promote a healthy ecosystem. Additional nutrients such as choline, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids have also gained attention as being protective beyond normal growth and development, possessing functional effects that may be vital to future recommendations for health.
Thoughts on some nutrient and nonnutrient bioactives and their roles in health
W. Allan Walker, MD, is the Conrad Taff Professor of Nutrition, director of the Division of Nutrition, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and principal investigator of the Mucosal Immunology Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he researches the function of protective nutrients (omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, etc) in children, immunologic protective functions of breast milk, and interaction of bacteria with intestine as a means of preventing gastrointestinal disease states.
Kasey Heintz, MS, has a background in nutrition research and is a Consumer Safety Officer at the US Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Office of Food Additive Safety, in College Park, Maryland. She previously was manager of Nutrition Programs at a boutique nutrition communications firm in the Washington, DC, metro region.
The 11th Annual Postgraduate Nutrition Symposium held by the Division of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School was made possible by unrestricted educational grants from The Dannon Company, Inc; Yakult Honsha Co, Ltd; Abbott Nutrition; Campbell’s Center for Nutrition and Wellness; Egg Nutrition Center; Mead Johnson Nutrition; National Dairy Council; The Peanut Institute; and The Conrad Taff Teaching Fund.
The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.
Correspondence: W. Allan Walker, MD, Department of Pediatrics, Mucosal Immunology Laboratory, Massachusetts General Hospital–East, 114 16th St (114-3503), Charlestown, MA 02129 (firstname.lastname@example.org).