Are you confused about how probiotics can enhance your health? Commercial TV ads claim their yogurt products can prevent constipation, enhance immune functions, or protect your heart. If that’s not confusing enough, recent ads have also started to promote PRE-biotics in addition to PRO-biotics.
A recent class action lawsuit against Danone’s (or Dannon’s) Activia yogurt sparked discussion about health benefits of probiotics. Most yogurt products contain active cultures anyway, so some people wonder if it’s really worth paying a premium for extra probiotic strains.
What are Probiotics?
In 2002, a Joint FAO/WHO Working Group defined probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” In other words, probiotics are live bacteria that are beneficial to your health, when eaten in an adequate amount. It is important for your large intestine to maintain a healthy count of these “good” bacteria – a concept first promoted by a Russian scientist back in 1907!
Health Benefits of Probiotics
- Studies have found that probiotics may improve nutrient bioavailability, for B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium and phosphorus, among others.
- Pediatric studies have found that certain strains (such as Lactobacillus GG, found in Culturelle capsules) may aid in significantly decreasing the rate of acute diarrhea and rotavirus shedding. Parents also reported a 25% decrease in diaper rash among babies drinking formula containing probiotics.
- Probiotics and active bacteria culture may improve lactose intolerance. The bacterial strain commonly used in yogurt can produce lactase enzymes. Therefore, people with lactose intolerance and children suffering from intestinal infection can usually tolerate yogurt with an active culture.
- Some studies have shown that by regulating intestinal transit time, probiotics improve constipation among the elderly.
- Other studies have shown that probiotics, especially acidophilus, promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the colon and reduce the conversion of bile into carcinogens (cancer-causing substances).
- Some studies have found that probiotics may enhance immunity by regulating lymphocytes and antibodies.
Different bacterial strains are effective for different health functions. A yogurt containing active live culture will not necessarily offer the above health benefits. According to Mary Sanders, the Executive Director of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, the science of probiotics is still emerging and regulation on the industry is not optimal yet.
Dr. Lynne McFarland, Affiliate Associate Professor at the University of Washington agrees. Take the controversial Activia yogurt as an example. “The subjects in the Activia’s study were not constipated,” said McFarland, who is the co-author of The Power of Probiotics, a consumer guide to probiotics. “So how does increasing transit time make them healthier?”
Both experts suggest that you should always check with the manufacturers to find out if they have scientific studies to back up their health claims.
Gloria Tsang is the author of 5 books and the founder of HealthCastle.com, the largest online nutrition network run by registered dietitians. Her work has appeared in major national publications, and she is a regularly featured nutrition expert for media outlets across the country. The Huffington Post named her one of its Top 20 Nutrition Experts on Twitter. Gloria’s articles have appeared on various media such as Reuters, NBC & ABC affiliates, The Chicago Sun-Times, Reader’s Digest Canada, iVillage and USA Today.