"Good" Bacteria Foods: Health or Hype?

Probiotics may be a healthy addition to your diet

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

March 10, 2006 -- There has been a significant buzz on television commercials and in the media making a strong case that everyone needs to add probiotics into their diets for good health. Faith Popcorn, trend predictor, noted probiotics as one of the hottest food trends for 2006. Are you confused by terms like probiotics that sound more like a chemistry experiment than a dietary supplement? You're not alone.

Probiotics are the latest in the category of good-for-you foods. Basically, they are "good" bacteria added to foods or occurring naturally in certain yogurts, fermented dairy drinks, and in supplement form. Probiotics have been used as a form of treatment for a variety of gastrointestinal diseases including irritable bowel, lactose intolerance, traveler's diarrhea, and antibiotic-induced diarrhea.

How do they work? Scientists are not exactly sure but surmise that the good bacteria replace or crowd out the germs or bad bacteria in the intestinal tract. Another theory is that the good bugs keep the intestinal tract acidic where bad bugs can't survive. Our digestive tracts are lined with more than 400 different kinds of good bacteria that help fight off infection and keep us healthy. The largest group of good bacteria is the one found in yogurt. By consuming foods with probiotics, you can increase the number of healthy bacteria, boost your immunity, and promote a healthy digestive system.

Which Probiotics Should You Try?

Buyer beware: Not all probiotics are the same. Figuring out which supplements are beneficial can be a daunting task since the FDA does not regulate dietary supplements. The only yogurts that contain probiotics are the ones that say "live and active cultures" on the label. Within the "live and active cultures" yogurts, some products contain significantly more healthy bacteria than others.

There is certainly no harm and lots of potential benefit in using yogurt or a fermented dairy drink to boost your intestinal health at home, when traveling, or if you are taking a course of antibiotics. I am a firm believer in always choosing food first over supplements whenever it is an option.

Yogurt is a terrific snack or part of a healthy meal and is a nutritional powerhouse, containing an excellent source of calcium (450 milligrams per cup) and protein (13 grams per cup). Best bets: Choose yogurts with live and active cultures that are low-fat or nonfat without lots of extra sugar. Pay attention to the expiration date; live cultures diminish with time.

Even if you have trouble digesting milk, the friendly bacteria in yogurt help digest the lactose and make it more tolerable for lactose-sensitive people.

Probiotics have been studied over the last several years and appear to be safe, which is promising but inconclusive. They work like a charm in some patients and don't do a thing in others. Don't look at probiotics as a panacea to cure everything; more studies are needed to determine the role of probiotics in health and disease. Check with your doctor before consuming probiotics if you have bowel disease.

Bottom Line

Why not give it a try? After all, what harm is there in enjoying a nutritious, bacteria-friendly yogurt? Probiotics are not a magic bullet to prevent or cure disease, but they are considered safe since the good bacteria are already a part of the digestive system. They offer a quick and easy first line of defense along with a healthy diet.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is WebMD's director of nutrition. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.