You may have heard about probiotics but weren't really sure what role they play in food and our health. Probiotics are “good” bacteria that can be found in foods, beverages and supplements. They are used in the preparation of fermented dairy products such as yogurt, buttermilk and kefir. Lactobacilli and bifidobacteria are most commonly used. In addition to probiotics being used in the fermentation process, they are now being added to other foods, such as cheese.
Usually we want to keep bacteria out of our food, but this isn't the case with probiotics. Probiotic bacteria can assist the body's naturally occurring gut flora in maintaining a healthy balance in the digestive system.
Consumption of probiotics can decrease the amount of harmful bacteria and increase the amount of beneficial bacteria in the intestine. Our intestinal bacteria are normally in balance, but antibiotics, poor diet and stress can cause an imbalance. This imbalance has been linked with disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and yeast infections.
Probiotics have been reported as helping improve digestive health, enhance immune function, promote regularity, alleviate lactose intolerance and relieve symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome. Some studies have shown that eating yogurt during antibiotic treatment may help prevent diarrhea and is beneficial in reducing risk of yeast infections in women.
It is recommended that probiotics be consumed on a daily basis to get the full benefit as the probiotics only remain in the digestive tract for a limited time. The potential health benefits of probiotics are dependent on a few factors, including the quantity ingested, processing and the particular strain used.
Growth of probiotics in the intestine can be stimulated by prebiotics. Prebiotics are fiber that feed the probiotics and enhance their growth.
They occur naturally in some fruits and vegetables and are showing up in more foods such as yogurt and cottage cheese. The two most common prebiotics are inulin and oligofructose.
Prebiotics taken with probiotic bacteria are called “synbiotics.” They both work together to more efficiently promote the probiotics' benefits.
For example, you will find an increasing number of brands of yogurt with added prebiotics. These prebiotics in combination with the probiotics already present help promote the probiotic benefits.
Probiotics and prebiotics in foods are not likely to affect your food preparation, but high heat and processing can destroy the probiotics. (You may have already been offering them by selling yogurt or making a recipe with buttermilk!)
There is an increased demand for products that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition, so expect to see more products on the market with added probiotics and prebiotics.
Laura Walsh, L.D., L.D.M., is founder of Walsh Nutrition Group, Inc. (www.walshnutritiongroup.com) and has more than 15 years of experience in the food and health industry.
Books on Probiotics
Probiotic and Prebiotic Recipes for Health: 100 Recipes that Battle Colitis, Candidiasis, Food Allergies, and Other Digestive Disorders
by Tracy Olgeaty Gensler Fair Winds Press, 224 pp., $19.95 (paperback — this book is scheduled to be published June 1, 2008)
The Power of Probiotics: Improving Your Health with Beneficial Microbes,
by Gary W. Elmer, Lynne V. McFarland and Marc McFarland
Haworth Press 2007, 236 pp.
The Probiotics Revolution: The Definitive Guide to Safe, Natural Health Solutions Using Probiotic and Prebiotic Foods and Supplements
by Gary B. Huffnagle and Sarah Wernick Bantam 2007, 432 pp., $24 (hardcover)