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PROBIOTICS

Jane Park/MEDILL

Lifeway Probugs is Lifeway Foods’ new line of organic whole milk kefir products for children that contains 10 live and active cultures.


Probiotics beneficial, but not cure-alls, say health professionals

by Jane Park
Jan 21, 2009


PROBIOTICS 2

Photo courtesy of The Dannon Company, Inc.

Make sure that your probiotic food products identify the specific strains of bacteria on their labels. Dannon's DanActive's nutrition label, shown above, lists three strains.

Related Links

Usprobiotics.orgInternational Scientific Association for Probiotics and PrebioticsAmerican Gastroenterological Association

Smart tips for adding probiotics into your diet

Michael Neuwirth from The Dannon Company, Inc., and Julie Smolyansky, president and chief executive officer of Lifeway Foods, Inc., offer some notes about choosing probiotic products.

Choose products from a reputable company.

The companies should be forthcoming about their research and should make summaries of studies available to the public, said Neuwirth. 

Dannon markets the yogurts Activia, DanActive and Danimals, and information about clinical research and specific strains of probiotics in each product can be found on the company Web site.

Morton Grove-based Lifeway Foods, Inc., nationally distributes Kefir, a probiotic beverage that contains 10 live cultures. Information on Kefir research can be found on the company Web site.

Look for the specific strain of bacteria in the product.

Most probiotic products will identify the individual strain on their labels. Remember that benefits can differ for each strain of bacteria, and not all products will contain the same.

Dannon’s Activia contains Bifidus Regularis.
Dannon’s DanActive contains L.Bulgaricus, S.Thermophilus and L.Casei Immunitas.
Dannon’s Danimals contains Lactobacillus GG.
Lifeway Kefir contains 10 different strains.

Be aware of the shelf life of the product.

Probiotics are only effective while they are alive, said Neuwirth. For Dannon products, the general shelf life is 40 to 50 days.

Probiotics should be taken as food, not medication.


For kefir consumption, Smolyansky says at least two cups a day is sufficient to gain positive benefits.

Probiotics contained in dairy products such as yogurt and kefir are preferable to dietary supplements of probiotics.


Dairy products protect probiotics from the “harshness” of stomach acids, said Neuwirth.

Smolyansky says dairy is a “very good vehicle for probiotics to flourish and to help get it in a good form to your gut.”

 


Food companies tout probiotics, the “friendly” bacteria found in yogurt and kefir, as a desirable addition to a nutritious diet.

But health professionals caution against treating them as cure-alls.

Probiotics are “live microorganisms that are similar to beneficial microorganisms found in the human gut,” according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

They are most often found in fermented dairy products such as yogurt and kefir, and also in granola bars, soy products and dietary supplements. Even the World Health Organization touts the benefits of probiotics in dairy.

Probiotics may help boost one’s immune system, prevent infection, strengthen the barrier of the intestine and inhibit or destroy toxins, according to the American Gastroenterological Association. They may also help relieve diarrhea, abdominal cramps and constipation in patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and other disorders.

But the operative word is “may.” Clinical research on probiotics is still limited, though ongoing as food companies conduct their own studies.

The lack of standardized benefits, dosage and strains of probiotics makes medical experts hesitant to recommend them to patients as a viable treatment option, though everyone agrees they are part of a good diet.

“The problem with probiotics is that there is no standardization, so in other words, they all have different bacterium,” said Dr. Robin Fintel, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and an assistant clinical instructor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

While the most common probiotics come from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium groups, each group of bacteria has different species that have different strains. In turn, different strains can have different benefits for different bodily functions. And that makes it difficult for physicians to recommend a correct amount to consume for the best benefits. 

“In the future, if we had genetically engineered probiotics, then physicians would be able to say, ‘OK, here’s the right one for your disease,’” said Fintel, suggesting standardization was a prerequisite for developing the fine details of dosage and prescription.

“Research is all over the place,” said Annie Neuendorf, a registered dietitian at the Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation. She said she is excited about the potential power of probiotics but there's no hard evidence from clinical studies regarding them.

“They seem to have an anti-inflammatory effect and can help with pain,” Neuendorf said. “On the other hand, there can be side effects. There is no regulation on dosage at this point.”

She said moderation is key, and that people eating probiotics should read product labels and make sure consumption doesn’t conflict with any medical treatments. Probiotics should be taken to supplement a healthy diet, not to replace treatment with medication, Neuendorf said.

Michael Neuwirth of The Dannon Company, Inc., agrees.

While Dannon, which makes the yogurt products Activia, DanActive and Danimals, conducts its own clinical research on probiotics, Neuwirth said there’s no “magical” number of servings or a formula for treating illness just yet.

But including probiotics in a healthy diet can be beneficial, Neuwirth said.

“Great tasting foods that are nutritious and functional are a triple win,” he said.

While probiotics can supplement a healthy diet, Neuendorf and Fintel remind consumers to take them as foods, not medicine.

“I think there will be more research,” said Fintel. But for right now, it’s difficult to utilize probiotics as a treatment, Fintel said.