Gastrointestinal Problems and the Probiotic Food Market
Between 60 and 70 million people in the United States have digestive disorders, and 16 million new cases of infectious diarrhea occur each year. Probiotics, which are living bacteria that exist naturally in fermented foods, have been shown to help digestion and boost immunity. In response to people with growing gastrointestinal problems, the probiotics foods market now rakes in $30 billion each year. But is that money well spent?
We Actually Need Bacteria!
Foods that contain probiotics have gone largely unstudied, so it’s difficult to know whether or not they really provide a benefit. Food and Drug Administration regulations prevent doctors from conducting clinical trials on foods that contain probiotics without first registering them as drugs. If that were to happen, you would need a prescription just to buy your favorite yogurt.
On the flip side, 70 percent of your body’s natural defenses are found in the gut, so it’s important to understand the role played by probiotics in a healthy diet. The first thing you should know is that not all bacteria are created equal. Specifically, this means not all are bad, and humans actually need good bacteria to survive. But more does not always equal better; of the 300 strains of probiotics that are on the market, only 20 or so have been fully studied. Thus, buying a product that lists dozens of cultures on a label may not result in a better product, and the combination of strains could hinder the activity of some good bacteria.
Because probiotics are alive, they need to be treated with care. Foods like yogurt, kefir, and pickles should be stored in cool, dry environments to keep them alive when they get into your body. For best results and for long-term storage, most of these should be kept refrigerated.
You can fight disease with foods enriched with probiotics, but it’s how you eat these foods that matters. Pizzas and breads may well contain billions of live and active cultures, at least until you heat the pizza or toast the bread. Then you kill all the bacteria and reap none of the benefits. This is complicated by the fact that many food labels don’t provide such information.
It’s also important to remember that just because a food contains probiotics doesn’t necessarily mean it or the bacteria are doing anything for you. Most products have never been tested in humans, and consumers have no idea which ones to get or what they do.
Evidence for Probiotics
Despite this, evidence on the benefits of probiotics is building, and much of it is positive. The most convincing evidence for probiotics comes from studies of infectious diarrhea. In 2008, an expert panel at Yale University reviewed available data and recommended probiotics for the treatment of childhood and adult infectious diarrhea. Other studies suggest these natural remedies may even protect against common respiratory infections and fight allergies.
Specific probiotic organisms appear to be effective for particular illnesses, so choosing the right kind is crucial. Organisms that may be helpful for infectious diarrhea, for instance, include Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus GG, and Lactobacillus reuteri.
Another thing to keep in mind is that retail probiotics vary drastically, so you have to be aware of imposters. Some products might not have sufficient numbers of live bacteria to make them effective, and others may not be well-maintained, causing the number of live bacteria on the label to be incorrect. Look for the “live & active culture,” or LAC, seal on the product. This benchmark was established by the National Yogurt Association to easily identify quality products that meet the highest standards for probiotics supplements.