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What Are Probiotics?

Did You Know?
For a food to be considered probiotic, it must meet the following criteria:

  1. Have living microorganisms.
  2. Have a high enough concentration of those microorganisms to survive through the stomach.
  3. Provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.

According to the U.N.’s World Health Organization, probiotics are “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” In other words, they are tiny living organisms (like bacteria and yeast) that may help improve your health beyond the basic nutrition when you eat enough of them.

It’s important to note that there are many different types of bacteria, and that not all of them are bad for you. Most of the time, bacteria is thought of as something that can make you sick. However, many types of bacteria can actually help you maintain good health. There are millions of bacteria that live in your digestive system, and they help maintain good digestive function, boost your immune system and maintain the overall balance between the good and bad bacteria in your digestive tract.

Unfortunately, the good bacteria in your digestive system can be depleted for many common reasons. For example, taking antibiotics, drinking excess alcohol, eating a poor diet, or being under a lot of stress can all lead to lower amounts of the good bacteria in your digestive tract. Not only can a lowered amount of the friendly bacteria lead to poor digestion, but the imbalance between the good vs. bad bacteria can cause further problems if the imbalance is not corrected.

Most probiotics are very similar to the friendly bacteria that are found living in your digestive system and taking probiotics is the easiest way to replenish the good bacteria to help restore and maintain the proper balance. Probiotics are usually eaten as foods (like yogurt, kefir, fermented milk, miso, tempeh, and natto beans) or as dietary supplements in the form of capsules, tablets, or powders.

Health Benefits of Probiotics

Did You Know?
Studies have shown that eating probiotics regularly may help with:

  • Allergies
  • Cancer
  • Diarrhea
  • High Cholesterol
  • Hypertension
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Immune System Regulation
  • Kidney Stones
  • Lactose Intolerance
  • Oral Health
  • Yeast Infections

There are many health benefits that have been linked to eating probiotics. It is important to note, however, that each of the health benefits depends on the type of microorganism, and the benefits may vary based on which strain of a specific bacteria is present in the food or supplement.

One common health benefit that is linked with the bacteria commonly found in yogurt is that the lactic acid bacteria found in yogurt helps lactose intolerant people digest dairy products more easily. There have also been a number of studies that have shown that certain probiotics can help treat and/or prevent conditions like: diarrhea, urinary tract infections and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Other studies have shown that consuming probiotics may also reduce the recurrence of bladder cancer, shorten the length of certain intestinal infections, and to help prevent and manage eczema and other allergies in children.

There are also studies that suggest that eating a diet high in probiotics may also reduce the risk of colon cancer. Although these findings are preliminary, the researchers believe that probiotics may help reduce the risk of colon cancer through several different ways. Certain types of bacteria may release cancer-causing chemicals as a normal part of their metabolic activity, which can then build up in the colon. Studies have shown that eating the right types of probiotics may help reduce the exposure to these cancer-causing chemicals by decreasing the number of bacteria that produce them, by metabolizing the chemicals themselves, by producing chemicals that improve a cell’s ability to die (and thus preventing an overgrowth of abnormal cells), by producing compounds that inhibit the growth of tumor cells, or by stimulating the immune system to fight against cancer cell growth. While these studies are preliminary and more research needs to be done for conclusive information, the initial findings do point towards a link between probiotics consumption and lowered cancer risk.

If you are planning on using probiotics to help you with specific conditions, always consult your physician so that you and your doctor can create a comprehensive health care plan that meets your needs.

Yogurt as a Probiotic

Did You Know?
According to the guidelines by the National Yogurt Association, yogurt must have 100 million (100,000,000) active cultures PER GRAM at the time of manufacture for a yogurt to be certified as having ‘live and active cultures’. Frozen yogurt can have 10,000,000 active culture per gram at the time of manufacture.

Yogurt has been used around the world as a delicious and healthful food. It is made by growing various forms of lactic acid bacteria in milk or soymilk. Not only is yogurt enjoyed as a food by itself, but it is also used as a popular ingredient in many sauces, dressings and other recipes.

Not all yogurts that you purchase in a store are considered to be probiotics. In order for a yogurt to be considered probiotic, it must meet three very important qualifications. First, the bacteria need to be alive in the yogurt. Second, there must be enough of the bacteria to survive the harsh environment of your stomach to pass into your intestinal tract. And third, they must provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

Sometimes, it is difficult to figure out whether certain store-bought yogurts are probiotics. There are several reasons why they might not actually be probiotics. For example, if the bacteria cultures that were used to manufacture the yogurt are the wrong variety, they may not help you beyond the basic nutrition. Furthermore, even if the yogurt contains the right types of bacteria, there may not be a high enough concentration in the yogurt to survive through your stomach. Finally, even if there was a high enough concentration of the bacteria at the time the yogurt was manufactured, the concentration of live and active cultures may decrease rapidly while the yogurt is transported to the market and while it sits on store shelves.

What does all of this mean? The absolute best way to make sure that your yogurt is probiotics is to make it fresh at home. When you make your own yogurt, you are growing millions (if not billions) of the active cultures. Eating the yogurt fresh within ensures that the yogurt cultures will remain alive and in a high enough concentration to actually provide a health benefit. You also have the choice of which yogurt starter you want to use. Always use starter from a manufacturer you trust to have the right kinds of the friendly bacteria that will help improve your health. And of course, making yogurt at home lets you choose which ingredients are in your yogurt, so you can avoid artificial flavors, preservatives and other additives.

Of course, if you are unable to make yogurt at home and need to purchase it from a store, always read the label carefully so you know what you’re eating. Make sure that the yogurt is fresh, and see if the yogurt contains ‘live and active cultures’ as certified by the National Yogurt Association (NYA).

References and Resources

An Introduction to Probiotics. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Web site.

National Yogurt Association Web site.

USprobiotics.org Web site.