Just one letter apart, the terms synbiotics and symbiotics can create confusion, even among nutrition industry professionals and health science community.

These two terms sound remarkably similar and are sometimes, incorrectly, used interchangeably, despite different meanings. As consumers get proactive with matters of gut health and with synbiotics being a relatively new addition to the ‘biotics’ lexicon, it’s important to create a clear distinction between the two and reduce the potential for confusion.

In terms of etymology, both terms share similar roots. Prefixes syn- and sym- are two variations of the same term, derived from Greek and meaning united, combined or together. Common examples include synthesis, synergy, symmetry and symphony. The -biotic suffix, also derived from Greek, denotes living organisms and in the context of gut health, usually refers to bacteria.

What do synbiotics do?

Synbiotics, a rapidly growing category of nutraceuticals, refers most commonly to a combination of probiotics and prebiotics in a single product or formulation. As defined by ISAPP, synbiotics are “A mixture comprising live microorganisms and substrate(s) selectively utilized by host microorganisms* that confer a health benefit on the host”.

Probiotics are live “good” bacteria that are typically found in the gut microbiome, an ecosystem comprising of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea that reside in the gut. Probiotic bacteria are those that confer a specific health benefit to the host and can also be ingested as a functional ingredient.

Prebiotics, meanwhile, are non-digestible substrates, usually fibre, that nourish and feed health-promoting bacteria in the gut microbiome, with the goal of improving health.

Synbiotics are usually put into one of two categories, synergistic or complementary. In synergistic combinations, the prebiotic ingredient selectively nourishes the co-administered probiotic, or probiotics. This offers a highly targeted approach to a given health challenge. Complementary synbiotics, by contrast, use prebiotic and probiotic elements designed to work independently of each other, which can offer a wider array of potential health benefits to the host.

What does symbiotic mean?

In contrast, symbiotic does not refer to a product or category, but instead refers to a relationship between two or more organisms. Although we tend to think of mutually beneficial relationships first, symbiosis can also describe non-beneficial or neutral relationships, or those that only benefit one of the organisms.

The term is usually used in reference to the natural world, where flora and fauna species may develop complex mutualistic behaviours.

 A key example, and perhaps where the confusion comes from, would be humans and microbes. For example, bacteria are found in the gut microbiome alongside other organisms. They are nourished by food we consume, and in turn, some of these bacteria, known as “good bacteria”, confer a host health benefit.

Other well-known examples of symbiosis in nature include clownfish and sea anemones, nettle plants and caterpillars, and whales swimming with pilot fish.

The crossover, and perhaps confusion around the terms may lie in the context of the gut microbiome which contains commensal microbes that have a symbiotic relationship with each other and the host. As a result, the terms describe very different things. When symbiotics are discussed in the context of gut health and nutraceuticals, it’s likely to be done in error, and is instead referring to synbiotics.

The synbiotic market is expected to see strong ongoing growth, with a robust CAGR of 8.3% expected to continue to 2027 and Clasado Biosciences stands at the forefront of synbiotic innovation. Through a collaborative partnership with Probi AB, a renowned probiotic developer, we aim to accelerate the growth of the synbiotic market. We have launched synbiotic concepts which combine our Bimuno® GOS prebiotic ingredient with either Probi Digestis® or Probi Defendum®, complementary and synergistic combinations respectively.

By launching one of the first commercially available synbiotic combinations with a proven synergistic effect, we are making it easier than ever for formulators to tap into a highly engaged market.

So, while synbiotics and symbiotics may sound alike, their meanings and implications are very different. Synbiotics are a product category that offers targeted support for gut health and beyond through the combination of probiotics and prebiotics, whereas symbiotic relationships encompass a broader range of interactions observed in science and nature.

Now is the time for formulators to get to grips with synbiotics. The future of the category is bright and points towards a new path forward in gut-mediated health and wellness.