Probiotics: What You Need Know

April 21, 2011

What are probiotics and how were they discovered? And why you need them

A conversation about prebiotics is certainly not complete without mentioning probiotics. So what are probiotics and how were they discovered? The term probiotic literally means “for life.” Elie Metchnikoff, a Russian physiologist and Nobel Prize winner is credited for discovering probiotics, and was the first to suggest in the early 20th century that consuming bacteria could have a beneficial effect in the body.

His theory was based on the observation that the Bulgarian people lived long and healthful lives and regularly consumed yogurt. He determined that the acid-producing organisms in fermented dairy products could prevent “fouling” in the large intestine – and as a result, if consumed regularly, would lead to a longer, healthier life.

What You Need to Know
Probiotics are living microorganisms, “friendly” bacteria, usually lactic acid bacteria. The benefits of probiotics are realized by shifting the pH of the intestine downward; creating a less desirable environment for pathogenic (bad), bacteria. Probiotics are beneficial in the breakdown and absorption of certain vitamins, production of fatty acids improving the intestinal barrier, stool regularity, and possibly lessen the severity of certain allergies. The World Health Organization (among others) suggests that probiotics, when consumed on a daily basis, help strengthen the body's natural defenses. Keep in mind that seventy percent of the body’s immune system is inside the digestive tract! Microflora act as a physical barrier to help fight diseases; probiotics regulate the balance of bacteria and increase the “good bacteria” reinforcing this barrier. People over the age of 60 have 1,000 times fewer good bacteria than younger adults!

Probiotic research is constantly being updated and the list of possible benefits is impressive. It is important to keep in mind that the benefits are strain and dose-specific. Not all probiotics have demonstrated health benefits and there is no guarantee that the organisms will be alive or effective at the time of ingestion. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no standard definition or consensus on health claims for probiotics. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host." According to this definition, bacteria that have not been studied can not be considered probiotic.

Some Quick Probiotic Tips:

Check the “best by” or expiration date: This puts the odds in favor of the effectiveness of the probiotic.

Check for "live and active cultures": All yogurt products DO NOT contain live cultures or probiotics – check for the “live and active” seal on the package – this requires that the product contains at least 108 viable lactic acid bacteria per gram for refrigerated products and 107 for frozen. Read labels carefully. Products labeled “made with active cultures” may have gone through a heat treatment that actually kills the beneficial bacteria!

Make sure the probiotics have been clinically tested and proven beneficial.

Dose matters: make sure the product contains at least the amount of probiotic that the tests concluded to benefit health (these will decline if improperly stored, or not consumed by the “best by” date).

Decoding the science: probiotics are defined by their genus, species and strain- e.g. Bifidobacterium lactis HN019. Keep in mind that many brands that are touting probiotics have actually developed their own “names” for particular strains. Make sure that the label lists exactly what benefit you will receive from the particular type of bacteria.

Take care to make sure you refrigerate probiotics and probiotic yogurt products.