As Probiotics Trend Spreads, Benefits Sometimes Diluted

PHOTO: Probiotics are being promoted in everything from fermented foods to fruit juices.

If it seems like probiotics are taking over your supermarket shelves, you're not just seeing things.

The microorganisms of the moment are being advertised on labels for everything from hot sauce to instant coffee these days. But while the digestive and general health benefits of including probiotics in one's diet have been touted by health experts and doctors, not all strains and levels are created equal. So it's important to look beyond the fancy type.

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"Because it has become all the rage, I’ve seen people selling probiotic floor wash, if you can believe that," said Nancy Van Brasch Hamren, namesake of Nancy's Cultured Dairy & Soy in Eugene, Ore., which is credited as the first creamery in the U.S. to include Acidophilus and Bifidum cultures in its yogurt and was a pioneering company in the natural foods movement of the 1970s. "I'm not sure what that would do."

PHOTO: Nancy Hamren based the original Nancys yogurt off of a sour-cream-like recipe that belonged to her grandmother. Then she added acidophilus.
Courtesy Nancys Cultured Dairy and Soy
PHOTO: Nancy Hamren based the original "Nancy's" yogurt off of a sour-cream-like recipe that belonged to her grandmother. Then she added acidophilus.

For the uninitiated, probiotics are described as "a group of bacteria that have the unique ability to locate on special receptor sites in the lining of our lower digestive tract," said Hamren, who also serves as Executive Board Secretary of the International Probiotics Association. "They survive digestion, improve nutrient absorption, defend against harmful invading organisms and act as messengers to our immune system to regulate inflammation."

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With all of those wonderful attributes, it's no wonder that so many brands are looking to include probiotics in their products. The trick, as a consumer, is making sure the microorganisms exist in notable amounts--as in upwards of 10 billion, said Hamren, who added that fully cultured products should always taste tart and tangy.

You should also look for companies that are using well-documented strains, she said, such as LA5 or LB3. Companies that are willing to share their assays, affirming the strain, levels and pull date are the most reputable, she said.

None of this prohibits probiotics from inclusion in non-dairy products, however.

"All of our products are dairy-free, soy-free, vegan, non-GMO and kosher," said Todd Beckman, COO and co-founder of GoodBelly, a producer of probiotic fruit beverages.

He echoed Hamren's statement.

"A popular misconception about probiotics is that all probiotic strains are the same," he said. "Recent research studies show probiotics may be beneficial for a variety of health issues, from managing colic in babies to weight loss. However, it’s important for consumers to remember that specific strains are related to specific benefits and are not created equal."

GoodBelly beverages use the probiotic strain called Lactobacillus plantarum 299v (LP299V), from Swedish probiotics supplier, ProBi. According to Beckman, "LP299V survives passage beyond the stomach’s acidic environment in order to support the rest of the digestive system, which is proven by over 16 research trials and 2 decades of use. With 70 percent of the immune system dwelling in the digestive tract, healthy gut microflora is vital to overall health."

So can one ever have too much of a good thing?

"There has never been a known overdose," said Hamren. "That being said, I wouldn’t give a baby unlimited amounts."

As with anything, those interested in adding probiotics to their family's diet should consult with a health professional beforehand. But as you consider the rows of probiotic O.J., snack mix, coffee and condiments, don't forget that the old school fermented foods eaten by our grandparents can be a boon to digestive health as well.

"Any fermented food like kimchi, sauerkraut, and cultured cheeses is easier to digest," said Hamren. "All of those contribute to better digestion, an easier breakdown of nutrients and stimulate the immune system. So try to keep fermented foods in your life. It can even be a microbeer!"

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