Probiotics: Hype or Healthy
Probiotics has been getting a lot of media attention these days. A health standard, feel better, have more energy, as part of treatments for chronic diseases. How much of this is hype and how much is real?
Let’s examine exactly what are probiotics. Our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts are full of bacteria that play a critical role in our immunity and overall health. Just how critically important these bacteria are, is coming to light with more focussed research being done. Changing the microbiotic flora in the gut can have a significant impact on a variety of body systems, including immunity response and brain function. What we eat, the medicines we take, the illnesses we endure all impact the gut bacteria. Recent research confirms a strong link between gut health, immunity and brain function. (1,2)
Gut bacteria are our police force, destroying the bad bacteria and pathogens that enter our body. It is estimated that over 80% of the body’s anti-body producing cells are located in the GI tract. Clearly maintaining a healthy gut is very important to our overall health and brain function. (3) Some bacteria have been specifically studied as aids in treatment to a number of diseases and conditions. Not as cures, but as part of the healing processes. For more reading on this, visit USBiotics (4)
So, probiotics are good for us, but with so many products on the shelves, how do we know what to buy? Well, there’s the hype. As commercial producers jump on the bandwagon, how do we know what is really useful and what is hype. First, it is important understand what’s on the label.
- According to ProbioticsNow.com, look for a “National Yogurt Association” seal which requires yogurt to contain at least 100 million cultures per gram or 20 billion per 8oz serving.
- The most commonly used bacteria in probiotic products are Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, and can be found in consumer products as powders, tablets, drinks and fermented dairy products. Other bacteria you may see on labels include Leuconostoc, Lactococcus, and others. Many of the strains used to produce commercial products are now mass produced from strains developed in the labs from naturally occurring strains. (4,5) There are many foods, however that are cultured naturally and are rich in probiotics.
- Stick to plain, unflavoured products as much as possible. Some sweetened yogurt products can have as much sugar as a soft drink.
- Look for added fiber such as pectin, inulin, fructo-oligosaccharide (FOS) or polydextrose.
- Watch out for pasteurized products as they will have gone through a heat cycle to kill active bacteria. Many milk products will be pasteurized first then have the active cultures added after.
Now, what about Prebiotics? What’s the difference?
Probiotics are the beneficial bacterial. Think of prebiotics as their superfood. By ingesting prebiotics you are directly feeding the bacteria. Prebiotics are foods rich in plant fiber, ones that our bodies don’t actually digest but that the bacteria thrive on. It is found naturally in apple skins, bananas, onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, beans, oatmeal, red wine, honey, and maple syrup to name a few. (5,7)
A short list of foods with live culture probiotics to consider trying:
- Yogurt – this is the most overwhelming category of food in the probiotic movement. The good folks at the BeneficialBacteria.net have written up a terrific primer on understanding yogurt and labels.
- Sauerkraut & kimchi – sour cabbage with kimchi being the spicy version. Look for product that has not been pasteurized as most of the products on grocery shelves have been. Try local farmer’s markets to get a more traditional version of these.
- Kefir – a very old fermented milk product that apparently has its origins in the north Caucasus Mountains. It is made of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts in a grain that resembles cauliflower. The grains are added to milk and left to ferment. The result is a thick, tart milk product that is easy to digest. The fermentation process uses up the lactose so even those with lactose intolerance can often enjoy this beverage.
- Buttermilk – another fermented milk product that may be an acquired taste but if you love it, it is good stuff. Watch the labels to make sure it has active cultures (unpasteurized). Cooking with it destroys the active culture.
- Kombucha – is a fermented tea that is lightly effervescent and likely has its origins in north China or Manchuria. While it has plenty of probiotics there are some cautions for people who have candida issues.
- Miso soup – a popular traditional Japanese soup that has many variations. Caution to those avoiding soy products, this is oftentimes made with fermented soy beans.
- Cheeses – any cheese that has been aged but not treated with heat (pasteurized) will have active culture bacteria, some more than others. Examples are provolone, gouda, edam, cheddar, emmental, and gruyere.
- Sourdough breads – made from a true starter of yeast and bacteria culture can be another good source of food to standardize on. If you buy from a bakery be sure to ask if its a real starter as many make it from a powered version that generates the flavour without the culture.
- Sour pickles – look for ones made from a naturally fermented process with salt. If it has vinegar it does not have any active cultures.
It is worthwhile to search out and try different probiotic rich foods and see what you can include into your regular diet. The more basic the food (minimal additives), the better it will be. See if it makes a difference in your life.
1: Gareau MG. Microbiota-gut-brain axis and cognitive function. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014;817:357-71. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-0897-4_16. PubMed PMID: 24997042.
3: Ried K. Gastrointestinal health. The role of pro- and pre-biotics in standard foods. Aust Fam Physician. 2004 Apr;33(4):253-5. Review. PubMed PMID: 15129471.
5: Nielsen B, Gürakan GC, Unlü G. Kefir: A Multifaceted Fermented Dairy Product. Probiotics Antimicrob Proteins. 2014 Sep 27. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID:25261107.