The good, the bad, the bacteria
Imagine billions of bacteria entering your body. Most people would cringe at the thought, and yet more than ever, people today are buying products that provide them with just that. Probiotics have become a health craze hailed by many health professionals and marketed to the masses, but most consumers remain unaware of what exactly they are, why they might be beneficial, and how to choose the most effective products.
According to the World Health Organization, probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
Many people consume probiotic products to attain the benefits of supplementing their own natural colonies of intestinal flora sometimes called “good” bacteria. This may assist in the process of eliminating any “bad” bacteria ingested.
“There’s an estimated 10 trillion bacteria in your digestive tract, most of which are in the colon, and of that 10 trillion, there are about 500 different species which are all beneficial bacteria necessary to maintain digestive health,” says registered dietitian Dona Richwine, who received a Master of Science degree in Human Nutrition at the University of New Haven.
Richwine transferred to California State University of Los Angeles’ coordinated dietetics program from Santa Monica College (SMC) and now teaches nutrition at SMC.
Although more research is needed, probiotics are believed to help alleviate certain digestive irregularities, according to SMC professor of nutrition Yvonne Ortega. Such conditions include lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, and H. pylori bacteria infection—a condition linked to peptic ulcers.
However, not all probiotics have the same benefits and functions. Choosing a probiotic product that is truly advantageous can be a daunting task.
The grocery store yogurt aisle alone holds hundreds of options from which to choose, but probiotics can also be found in an array of other products such as supplements in pill form, juices, coconut water, and cultured milk beverages called kefir.
“The true problem with labeling of probiotics is that consumers do not know what strains to look for in the product,” Ortega says.
According to the Nutrition Action Healthletter, companies are not required to reveal the specific strains of bacteria, and most do not.
Different strains of probiotics can have entirely different benefits, even if they belong to the same genus and species. Furthermore, some yogurt labels fail to divulge even the species of bacteria, stating simply “live and active cultures” in the ingredient list.
According to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, even if a product label reads the word “probiotic,” it may not necessarily contain “clinically validated strains or levels in the product.”
“One of the things you have to know is, there’s no real regulation on probiotics,” Richwine says. “So you don’t even know what you’re getting, and there’s a good chance that they’re dead by the time you get them.”
Manufacturers of probiotic products are not required to disclose the number of bacteria present, or how long those bacteria will remain “live and active” cultures, either.
“It is important to note that in order to be effective, foods must provide a minimum number of bacteria, thought to be between 1 billion to 10 billion,” Ortega says. “Also remember, these live bacteria have a limited shelf life, so they must be stored and consumed within a short amount of time.”
At this time there is no national standard for identifying the amount of active bacteria in foods and supplements,” Ortega continues.
“So, the National Yogurt Association has established a ‘Live & Active Cultures’ seal, which indicates that the yogurt contains an adequate amount of active bacteria per gram.”
Despite the NYA’s attempt to make the selection of probiotic products more consumer-friendly, the vast majority of yogurts do not bear this seal. Some brands of yogurt that display the NYA’s “Live & Active Cultures” seal include Mountain High, Yoplait, and Chobani.
"We have a real fascination with our bowel," Richwine says. "Cleansing, probiotics, those things really seem to appeal to us because we have this idea that our digestive system needs help to keep it clean and healthy. But the fact is, all it really needs is high fiber, water and exercise, just like the rest of you."
By Amber Antonopoulos