Probiotics: Health or Hype?

When you think about bacteria, you might think about the microorganisms that cause diseases like strep throat. In fact, healthy human bodies are teeming with bacteria. Bacteria outnumber human cells ten to one in our bodies. We have trillions of bacteria inside our bodies and on our skin.

Probiotics is a name for those good-for-you microorganisms, including bacteria and yeasts, that support a healthy digestive system and keep your body functioning well.

In the grocery store, “probiotics” means products that contain these live, active microorganisms. Yogurt and sauerkraut are two great examples of foods that can contain probiotics. Probiotic yogurt contains Lactobacillus, for example. Fresh sauerkraut typically contains Leuconostoc mesenteroides.

Some people find that probiotics help with gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Some believe that they are good for vaginal health or preventing colds.

Evidence for the value of probiotics

There’s plenty of evidence that the good bacteria in our bodies are good for us. But does that mean that live cultures in yogurt are improving our health? Not necessarily.

First, the FDA sees probiotics as food, not as a drug. Manufacturers don’t have to prove that their foods are healthful. The FDA has not approved probiotics for treatment of any health conditions at all.

Second, the products that call themselves probiotic vary a great deal. Different products contain different microorganisms in different quantities. Researchers at Boston University found enormous differences between probiotic supplements and naturally probiotic foods like miso soup.

Supplements often don’t have the same level of effectiveness as the foods they come from, and there may even be safety concerns for some new probiotic products. Yogurt and sauerkraut have been eaten around the world for centuries, but probiotic-laced water, probiotic pills, or probiotic skin mist may be a different kettle of fish entirely. 

Studies of probiotics have not shown much evidence that the bacteria in the foods survive and colonize in the human body. They also haven’t shown much evidence that probiotic products do much to improve the health of already-healthy people. Experts point out that the number of microorganisms in a serving of probiotic food is tiny compared with the number already present in our systems.

However, there is some evidence that probiotics can help people who are using antibiotics. A course of antibiotics can disrupt our internal ecosystems. A cup of yogurt a day may help. The National Institutes of Health call for more research, saying that benefits “have not been conclusively demonstrated.”

The bottom line on probiotics

If you enjoy miso soup or kimchi, there’s no reason not to eat these treats just because they’re probiotic. But yogurt, even the probiotic kind that contains live cultures, often also includes a lot of sugar. The possible health benefits of the probiotics in these products may be canceled out by the health disadvantages of the sugar.

Check the label when you buy probiotic foods. Choose brands with live cultures and limited sugar. Canned sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables are usually pasteurized to keep them shelf-stable, so they will not contain live bacteria. Get your fermented vegetables from the refrigerator section if you want the probiotic effects.

If you find that you benefit from probiotics, remember that cooking can also kill those bacteria. Fresh sauerkraut from the refrigerated section may start out with some live microorganisms in it, but cooking up a dish of choucroute garni will kill them. Sourdough bread, too, has probiotics before it’s baked, but they won’t survive the oven.

Consider probiotics a nice side benefit of tasty fermented foods.Check with your doctor if you have questions about whether these foods are a good choice for you.

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