Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Skinny on Probiotics

We've all seen those commercials with belly-dancing midsections and ladies clad in yoga gear enjoying their yogurts, but really - what's the deal? What are pre- and probiotics and why are they so popular all of a sudden? Well, probiotics most definitely aren't new - they have just received a lot more attention in the past ten years or so as a result of their positive effects on our health.

To put it simply: probiotics are the "good" or "friendly" bacteria that live inside of your intestines. Having a healthy "gut flora" as it's called, is a key factor in promoting healthy immune and digestive systems through the absorption of nutrients. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are food ingredients that we cannot digest or break down but they nourish our gut flora, stimulating it's growth and colonization of the bowels. Keep in mind that we also have "bad" bacteria living inside of us, only it is normally kept in check and balance by all the good stuff. If, for some reason the scales tip toward the "bad" side, we are prone to falling ill. Case in point: diarrhea.

Now, food companies and their marketers have jumped on the probiotic bandwagon en masse, even "challenging" us to try their products, promising to make us feel better. The thing is, almost all yogurts contain live active cultures such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium (check the label), but these new yogurts have fancy, new patented and perfected strains of bacteria that are promised to be even better than before. Some yogurts have two or three strains, some have exclusive strains and some even have prebiotics in the mix! With all of this bombardment of options, are any of them actually worthwhile to try?

Certainly, every little bit helps. Studies have definitely found that probiotic cultures do indeed aid in improving our health, but it's important to realize that these yogurts and other products sold on a mass scale usually contain very few probiotic ingredients and won't do that much for you. Use them as a means of maintaining good health (as yogurts provide you with calcium and other important nutrients) as opposed to a treatment. In other words: don't look for a cure or some life-changing experience if you choose to consume these products. If you are looking for a therapeutic dose of probiotics, do your research or ask your doctor for a recommendation.

More research is in order on many of these "new" strains of bacteria present in popular yogurts, however most experts agree that consuming them can't hurt! It's worth a try. And if you do decide to give yogurts a try as a kind of "intro" to probiotics, opt for plain or non-fat yogurts in a bid to save your waistline; the fruity ones are often filled with crazy amounts of sugar and pack quite the caloric punch! Try adding your own fresh fruit for a tasty treat.

Bottoms up!


Anonymous said...

Great explanation on pro & prebiotics. I wonder how long until producers start introducing prebiotics into our food.

healthnut said...

They're already in some foods! Some breads (I belive Dempster's) contain inulin, a prebiotic, and certain yogurts also contain prebiotics.