Probiotics are one of the latest health crazes and manufacturers are cashing in on the consumer trend. You can find “healthy probiotics” labeling on more than yogurt; this marketing ploy is appearing on products like relish and even pizza!
Probiotic purchases tripled from 1994-2003, sales in 2005 have been estimated at $764 million and the market is currently estimated at $1.3 billion.
Unfortunately for us, many of these products won’t give you the health benefits they claim. Of the hundreds of probiotic products in the supermarket today, only “15-20 have clinical studies behind them,” says a microbiology professor from Lawson Research Institute.
A $300 million class-action lawsuit was brought against yogurt maker Dannon that charged them with deceptive marketing, false advertising and making unsubstantiated health claims. They settled out of court with the FTC.
What’s going on?
Probiotics are a good health investment, but only if they are packaged and processed correctly. Certain strains of bacteria have no research backing them up; added sugar offsets benefits; concentration numbers count; pasteurization kills both good and bad bacteria. Knowing what to look for on labels can help you to boost your immunity and correct certain health conditions.
What are probiotics?
The roots of the word “probiotic” mean “for life.” Probiotics refers to the “friendly” flora living in our digestive tracts that help us to break down our foods and gain nutrition from them. These bacteria, yeasts and molds make up 70%-85% of our immune system.
There is no standardized definition of probiotics as of yet, but the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations refer to probiotics as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
Probiotics have existed in every traditional diet in recorded history. German sauerkraut, Russian kefir, Korean kimchee, the cured meats and cheeses in France, soy sauce, pickles, sourdough breads, beer… even ketchup was originally a fermented fish sauce!
Food preservation before the use of refrigeration was the reason the practice of fermentation and the use of “friendly” flora emerged. The practice was sustained by the healthy by-product-benefits they conferred.
What are some of the health benefits of probiotics?
Besides helping us to digest our food, probiotics:
- compete with unhealthy bacteria for food
- produce antibacterial substances
- help to manufacture vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, A and K
- help us to extract minerals from our food
- help us to produce essential fatty acids
- eat excess sugar
- stimulate cell repair
- increase number of immune cells
- combat allergies and inflammation
- transform toxic metals and chemicals into useful compounds
The strongest evidence to date finds that probiotics help to:
- reduce diarrhea during antibiotic use
- prevent and treat urinary tract infections
- prevent and treat genital tract infections
- treat irritable bowel syndrome
- manage and prevent eczema in children
- fight food-borne illnesses
New studies underway may soon prove that probiotics can:
- reduce flu and colds
- reduce overuse of antibiotics
- treat kidney stones
- treat colic
- prevent cavities and gum disease
- treat colitis and Crohn’s disease
- combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria
- treat liver disease
- battle cancer
- manage autism
- lower cholesterol
- fight bacteria that causes ulcers
Why do we need to take added probiotics?
If probiotics are contained in many foods, why should we take more in the form of specific foods or supplements?
One of the biggest reasons for investing in probiotics is that few of us eat traditional foods or maintain a traditional diet any longer. We don’t drink herbal tonics every day or age our own cheeses. Many of the products we buy are processed for speed-to-market and uniformity and in the cheapest, most profitable ways. Fermentation is normally a slow and rather unpredictable craft. The addition of sugar and pasteurization limit the health benefits of probiotics in our foods.
Additional reasons that the microflora in our systems becomes unbalanced are:
- added hormones in foods
- antibiotic use
- birth control pills
- carbonated drinks
- preservatives and additives
What to look for
Stay away from general health claims and consider how much information is really on a label.
Stability: Probiotics need to be kept cold in order to preserve their potency. This applies to their production, transport, storage and sales.
Date: The fresher the better when you’re talking about living organisms.
Sugar: Sugar is not a good food source for probiotics. Prebiotics are the food source meant to keep probiotics alive. A synbiotic is a supplement that contains both prebiotics and probiotics. The best synbiotics contain healthy plant starches and fiber.
Living vs. dead: “Live and active cultures” is a better bet than “made with active cultures.” After fermentation, the product may be heat-treated which kills off both good and bad bacteria (extending shelf life).
Bacteria type: “Live and active cultures” does not necessarily mean that the kinds of bacteria the product holds has been proven as beneficial. The bacteria strain should consist of 2 names and two letters: the genus, species and strain. If the label lists two names, it could be any one of hundreds of bacteria without research or proven health benefits behind it. (Kraft’s use of “bifidobacterium lactis” really doesn’t tell you much.)
Potency: This is where it gets tricky. Most probiotic products don’t list the amount of bacteria their product contains and the amount that is effective depends upon many qualifiers. Health benefits can occur with 50 million colony-forming units (CFU) for certain conditions, and may take as many as 1 trillion CFU for others.
The higher the number the better. The Food Standards Code claims that at least one million live bacteria per gram are necessary in yogurt and other fermented drinks to provide the 10 billion CFU needed for health effect.
-Don’t be fooled by marketing claims of probiotics on processed foods. Stick with natural foods and high quality supplements if needed.
-A couple good brands of probiotic capsules I recommend are Nutrition Now PB-8 and Garden of Life.