What are probiotics?
Probiotics are defined as live microorganisms that are beneficial to health when consumed in adequate amounts. The most commonly used probiotics in the United States are strains of Lactobacilli or Bifidobacteria. Emerging science suggests that probiotics are most beneficial for gut health and immunity. They may also help reduce symptoms of diarrhea, lactose intolerance, and irritable bowel disease.
In general, a probiotic culture added to a food product must be deemed safe to eat, remain alive for the duration of the product’s shelf life, and be present in a quantity that provides the health benefits detailed in scientific studies.
In order to receive any of these health benefits, probiotics must be consumed in a form that remains intact during digestion. Although probiotics are now appearing in bars and cereals, the best sources are fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir and cheese. Dairy foods provide an ideal living environment, nutrients for the live bacteria and a buffer against stomach acid to aid their survival in the gut.
To buy or not to buy?
The intestinal tract is naturally lined with good bacteria that promote health by digesting food, preventing infection and regulating the immune system. This fact has led many to believe that adding more good bacteria will further promote good health. Since these naturally occurring bacteria are sensitive to medications, poor nutrition, stress, and aging it may be helpful to replenish these bacteria with foods or supplements that contain probiotics.
While the most supported research on probiotics suggests links to gut function and immunity, other claims are emerging. These claims include alleviation of diarrhea, reduction of osteoporosis risk, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Be mindful that some health benefits are strain-specific and may have only been observed in a limited number of strains.
Since the science is still emerging, there is not a standard recommendation for daily probiotic use. Research is encouraging but not conclusive; more information on safety is also needed. Although commercial products are generally safe, those with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems should consult a doctor before modifying their diet.
What should I look for?
There are currently no FDA-approved health claims for probiotics, meaning that manufacturers cannot legally state a probiotic can cure, treat or prevent disease. Structure-function claims relating probiotics to health (such as immunity) are allowed if supported by consistent research and are not misleading.
Follow these tips when shopping for probiotics:
- Look for the National Yogurt Association’s “Live Active Cultures” seal. You can also search the ingredient label for Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, or another bacteria name that is support by strain-specific research.
- Choose food products over supplements. They will provide nutrients in addition to the beneficial bacteria. For the treatment of specific medical concerns, consult with a doctor or dietitian about probiotic supplements.
- See beyond trademarks. Food manufacturers sometimes create their own “brands” for the name of the strain in the product. They are not scientific in nature and do not reflect product quality. Consult published research on the actual strain present.
- Be cautious of statements such as “clinically proven.” If you see this in relation to a specific strain, check if it is present in the same amount as used in published research that was performed on humans and is peer-reviewed in reputable journals. Many food manufacturers provide study results on their websites.
- Realize it’s not a numbers game. More bacteria present are not necessarily better. However, the amount of probiotics present should be comparable to the quantity that has been shown to be effective in clinical studies.
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