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Video: Is there enough bacteria in your diet?

By "Today" Food Editor
updated 9/19/2006 4:34:07 PM ET 2006-09-19T20:34:07

The term probiotic literally means “for life”. Elie Metchnikoff, a Russian physiologist and Nobel-prize winner is credited for inventing probiotics and was the first to suggest (in 1907) that consuming bacteria could have a beneficial effect.

His theory, based on the long life span and good health of the Bulgarian people who regularly consumed yogurt, was that the acid-producing organisms in fermented dairy products could prevent what he called “fouling” in the large intestine, and as a result, if consumed regularly, would lead to a longer and healthier life.

What you need to know about probiotics:
Probiotics are living microorganisms, i.e., “friendly” bacteria, usually lactic acid bacteria.

The benefits of probiotics are realized by this “friendly bacteria” shifting the pH of the intestine downward, which creates a less desirable environment for pathogenic (or bad) bacteria. The more “friendly bacteria” the more lactic, butyric and acetic acids are produced which increase the numbers of beneficial bacteria. People over the age of 60 have 1,000 times fewer good bacteria than younger adults.

The World Health Organization (among others) suggests that probiotics, when consumed on a daily basis may be beneficial in one or more ways:

  • Help strengthen the body’s natural defenses by providing regular probiotic bacteria for the intestinal tract.
  • Provide source of calcium to those individuals who are lactose intolerant and unable to consume most dairy foods.

Some of the benefits that have been shown by research so far:

  • Allergies: Probiotics in some people positively impact the mucosal barrier of the intestinal tract.
  • Cholesterol: Probiotics can raise the level of HDL — the good cholesterol.
  • Colon Cancer: Probiotics help maintain a healthy intestinal microflora and promote a healthy intestinal environment.
  • Constipation: Probiotics help shorten long intestinal tract transit time and can improve regularity.
  • Diarrhea: Probiotics maintain the level of “good bacteria,” which balance bacterial and virus infections that can cause diarrhea.
  • High Blood Pressure: While more research is needed to reach a consensus, several studies have suggested that fermented dairy products may have a positive effect on blood pressure.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Probiotics help restore the balance of bacteria and can eliminate the abdominal pain, gas or constipation.
  • Immunity: 70 percent of the body’s immune system is located in the digestive tract. The microflora acts as a physical barrier to help fight diseases. Probiotics as they regulate the balance of bacteria and increases the “good bacteria” reinforce this barrier.

But it is important to note that there are specific strains of good bacteria which offer targeted health benefits. For example, the probiotic strains B. infantis 35624 and B. animalis DN-173 010 (Bifidus regularis) are designed to benefit GI symptoms. A complete list of strains and their health benefits follow this article.

All yogurt products do not contain live cultures or probiotics. Look for the “Live Active Culture” seal on the package which requires that the product contains at least 108 viable lactic acid bacteria per gram for refrigerated products and 107 for frozen. However, this seal does not differentiate probiotics from starter bacteria and should not be used to determine the content of probiotics.

Look for Lactobacillus acidophilus or Bifidobacterium in the ingredient listings to verify the product does contain probiotics.

At the supermarket:
Let’s head to the supermarket shelves and get a taste!

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Dannon Activia with each 4 oz. serving of this probiotic yogurt you’ll consume billions of beneficial probiotic cultures, including Dannon's exclusive Bifidus Regularis, which is clinically proven to remain live and active in the digestive tract where it exerts its effect. Dannon says that when eaten daily as part of a healthy and balanced diet, Activia can help naturally regulate the digestive system in two weeks. Flavors: Strawberry, Blueberry, Mixed Berry, Peach, Prune, and Vanilla. Available in 4-packs ($2.49), 8-packs ($4.49) and 16-packs ($8.49) (activia.com)

DanActive (contains L. casei Immunitas) is a new generation of probiotic drinks which help strengthen your body's defense system. Flavors: Strawberry, vanilla, blueberry, and cranberry raspberry. 4-pack of 3.3 fl oz. bottles sells for $2.69. (danactive.com)

Lifeway Foods Kefir isa creamy probiotic dairy beverage similar to but distinct from yogurt. Its effervescent quality stems from the kefir culture which contains 10 active "friendly" microorganisms, compared to two or three in yogurt. Kefir also has more beneficial cultures than other fermented milk products, such as yogurt or buttermilk and is an ideal milk substitute for infants, pregnant women, nursing mothers, convalescents and elderly. It is a good remedy for digestive problems, and is particularly good in reestablishing necessary intestinal microflora, which may have been destroyed by antibiotic or other medical treatment. (lifeway.net)

PROBUGS™ is a new line of Organic Whole Milk Kefir for kids with fun characters and flavors even the pickiest eaters will like. Not only is it high in protein and calcium, it has added inulin for optimum calcium absorption. Plus it has 10 live and active cultures (friendly bacteria) to help their little bellies and immune system stay healthy. Sublime Slime Lime, Orange Creamy Crawler. 4-pack (5 oz. each) sells for $4.65 (lifeway.net)

Stonyfield Organic Yogurt iscertified to assure adherence to strict organicstandards. Organic standards prohibit the use of antibiotics, synthetic growth hormonesand toxic pesticides and fertilizers. And, organic foods are produced in a way thatenhances the earth’s long-term health and fertility. Available in whole milk and lowfat varieties (32 oz. Suggested retail price $3.49)(6 oz. SRP 95¢) (stonyfield.com)

Stonyfield Yobaby is all natural and certified organic. Made with milk from cows that were fed organic feed and have not been treated with antibiotics or artificial growth hormones. And, all of the fruits and grains used in these products were grown without the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers. YoBaby contains six live active cultures, including L. reuteri, which helps inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria such as E. Coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus and other organisms in your child’s digestive system. Stonyfield Farm is the only U.S. yogurt brand with L. reuteri, which also has a therapeutic affect on viral and bacterial diarrhea. (stonyfield.com)

Stonyfield Smoothiescontain six live active cultures, including L. reuteri. They help increase calcium absorption, promote good digestive health and fortify the body's natural defenses. Four delicious light smoothies that have 50 percent fewer calories and 60 percent less sugar than regular smoothies. They're made with nonfat yogurt and sweetened naturally with a blend of sugar and erythritol — a no-calorie naturally fermented sugar that is also found in some fruits. No artificial sweeteners. Suggested retail: 10 oz. single $1.65; 4-pack $3.95. (stonyfield.com)

Horizon Organic Products: Horizon Organic yogurt has five live and active cultures for digestive health, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Bifidobacteria bifidus, Streptococcus thermophilusand Lactobacteria casei. These cultures help keep the intestinal tract healthy by deterring the growth of harmful bacteria and encouraging the proliferation of beneficial organisms. Most contain NutraFlora®, a natural fiber and probiotic that actually enhances calcium absorption. Horizon Organic Blended Yogurt 6 oz. cup  $.99, Horizon Organic Yo-Yo's 4-pack of 4 oz. singles $2.69, Horizon Organic Baby Yogurt 4-pack of 4 oz. singles  $2.69, Horizon Organic Smoothies 4-pack of 6 oz. bottles $3.99, Horizon Organic Fat-free Vanilla 32 oz. size $3.19. (horizonorganic.com)

Horizon Organic cottage cheese starts with fat free organic milk and pasteurized certified organic cream. It is enhanced with calcium and two live and active cultures, L. acidophilus and B. bifidus, which have been shown to help support a healthy intestinal tract. Horizon Organic cottage cheese is one of the few cottage cheeses available that adds calcium back to replace what is naturally lost in processing. Horizon Organic cottage cheese is available in 16-ounce containers ($3.79) with Regular and Reduced Fat options. (horizonorganic.com)

Horizon Sour Cream is enhanced with the live and active cultures L. acidophilus and B. bifidus, which have been shown to help support healthy digestive function. Horizon Organic sour cream is available in 16-ounce containers ($2.79) with regular and reduced fat options.  (horizonorganic.com)

And now Probiotics are extending beyond dairy based products into breakfast cereals:

Kashi Vive Probiotic Digestive Wellness Cereal: Lightly toasted flakes, crunchy graham twigs with a hint of sweetness, and vanilla dipped rice crisps comprise this specially formulated cereal to balance, purify and strengthen the digestive system with the use of probiotics with Lactobacillus to improve the balance of good and bad bacteria in the digestive system. The cultures become live and active in the body and can thrive in the human intestine over an extended period of time. KashiVive cereal contains one billion probiotics per serving, which is comparable to common dietary supplements. In addition, ginger in KashiVive cereal eases and calms digestive ailments such as indigestion. Vive cereal also purifies the digestive tract and liver by incorporating fiber and natural broccoli extracts. Fiber helps to maintain regularity and flush harmful toxins from the intestines while broccoli extract supports the liver’s role in detoxification and cleansing of the blood. 12 oz. box retails for between $4.49 - $4.99 (kashi.com)

YogActiveCereal combines the crunchiness of rice flakes and real fruit with the calcium contained in milk products to create a complete cereal.Contains 15% yogurt pearls with active Lactobacillus acidophilus bacteria. YogActive contains no preservatives and no GMO-based ingredients. Three varieties are Strawberry, Blueberry and Kiwi — real fruit. (Currently available in Canada only) (yogactive.com)

For those who are considering taking Probiotics in a supplement form, it's important to note that there are many different product formats and contents including tablets, capsules and liquids. However, it is critical for the efficacy of the probiotic that the product be properly stored and prepared in order to maintain the viability of the bacteria in order to insure that the bacteria is alive by the time it reaches our intestine. Typically, the amount of bacteria in foods and beverages are much greater in number than you will find in a probiotic supplement and to the previous point, far greater numbers survive the trip down your intestinal tract to arrive safely at their destination sites where they will colonize.

Read those labels! Here’s our friendly bacteria101:

Today, most of the probiotics in products and in supplement form are principally the Bifidobacterium species and the Lactobacillus species.

In addition, here’s a list of just some of the bacteria (along with trade names you may see on packages) that are designed to have health benefits. However, each product or supplement and its amount of live bacteria may be different, so consult your physician before taking any of these in order to ascertain potential benefits or harm:

  • Allergies in infants: L. rhamnosus GG
  • Antibiotic associated diarrhea: L rhamnosus GG, S. boulardii   
  • GI symptoms: B. animalis DN-173 010 (Bifidus regularis), B. infantis 35624 (Bifantis)
  • Immune support: B. lactis HN019, B. lactis Bb12, L. casei DN114001
  • Infant diarrhea: L. rhamnosus GG, L. casei DN114001 (Defensis)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome: B. infantis 35624 (Bifantis)
  • Vaginal health: L. rhamnosus GR-1, L. reuteri RC-14            

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

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