Could introducing a prebiotic-rich kūmara powder to babies first foods promote ‘good’ gut bugs and boost immune health?

Researchers are seeking 300 Auckland babies who have not yet started eating solids to join a clinical trial that will investigate the potential health benefits of powdered kūmara with naturally enhanced prebiotic properties.

Prebiotics are a special type of dietary fibre that act as a fertiliser for healthy gut bacteria and are present in high-fibre foods such as vegetables, fruit, and wholegrains. “We know that the human gut microbiome – the bacteria and other microorganisms living in our gut – plays a major role in our health”, says Professor Clare Wall at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, who is leading the new study. “Babies are born with hardly any gut bacteria.

Their gut microbiome develops during their first months of life, influenced by their mode of birth delivery, milk feeding and environment.”

“Few studies have looked at how the introduction of solids along with continued milk feeding impacts this development, and the complementary feeding period is a great opportunity to introduce foods that optimise a baby’s health.”

The trial is part of a research programme funded by the High-Value Nutrition Ko Ngā Kai Whai Painga National Science Challenge, involving researchers from the University of Auckland, AgResearch, Plant & Food, Malaghan Institute, Riddet Institute (Massey University), and the University of Otago.

The team settled on kūmara through a process known as ‘reverse metabolomics’, which involved analysing the scientific literature on the infant gut microbiome and immunity to identify potential prebiotic complementary foods. Kūmara was chosen partly because it’s an appropriate and common ‘first food’ for babies.

A pilot study involving 40 babies confirmed the safety and feasibility of running the larger trial, which is dubbed SUN (Seeding through feeding: nourishing the infant).

Three hundred babies will enter the study, and from around six months of age will be randomised into one of three groups. One hundred (100) babies will receive a standard kūmara powder, 100 will receive a kūmara powder with added resistant starch (prebiotic) from green bananas, and 100 babies will enter the control group (e.g. a standard diet with no additional kūmara) which will provide valuable information on the complementary feeding period. If randomised to have the kumara powder, parents will be asked to mix the powder into a paste with water and gradually increase their baby’s intake to about one teaspoon of powder a day. Neither researchers nor parents will know which powder a baby receives until results are analysed.

Participants will be in the study for four months. Researchers will collect body measurements (length and weight), sleep patterns, food intake details, blood, and poo samples from babies at 4-5 months (before they start on solids), 8 months and around 10 months. They will also gather poo and breast milk (if breastfeeding) samples, food intake and sleep details from the infant’s mothers. Results are expected late 2023.

Professor Wall: “If we do find evidence that the kūmara-based prebiotic helps healthy bacteria proliferate in the gut, protecting babies from infection, this clearly has implications for parents, public health and food producers. It could offer a way of enhancing the health of babies on a wide scale simply through food.”

More details are available on the study page

Note: The difference between probiotics and prebiotics: PRObiotics are colonies of beneficial gut bacteria that are ingested; PREbiotics are food compounds that feed the beneficial gut bacteria already present in the large intestine.