Probiotics primer: The scoop on 'good bacteria'

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(ARA) - Most people think of bacteria as something that just makes you ill. Bacteria can be responsible for various illnesses and everyday annoyances. But not all bacteria are bad for you.

In fact, without the bacteria that live in everyone's digestive system, our bodies wouldn't be able to properly process food. And by now, you've probably heard or seen advertisements for foods that contain probiotics - what many in the food and healthcare industries call "good bacteria."

If most of what you know about probiotics comes from yogurt advertisements, you may - understandably - be skeptical about the bacteria's health benefits. After all, the information came from a source that wants you to buy a probiotic product. Numerous independent researchers and health organizations, however, also back the value of probiotics.

"Some evidence indicates that probiotic bacteria can enhance digestive function, which is intrinsic to overall health," says Joy Dubost, Ph.D., a registered dietician and a spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists. "However, with so much advertising and information on the topic, consumers may be confused about where to find probiotics, what their benefits are and how to incorporate these good bacteria into their lifestyles."

The food experts at IFT offer some sales-pitch-free insight into probiotics:

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are bacteria that are similar to beneficial micro-organisms that naturally live in our digestive system. There are two basic groups, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which are further divided into species and strains, Dubost says.

Researchers are examining hundreds of probiotic strains to determine what, if any, health benefits they provide.

What can they do for you?

Evidence suggests that several strains of probiotics can help treat diarrhea (especially if it's been caused by a rotavirus), constipation, urinary tract infections and irritable bowel syndrome. Some researchers also believe that by benefiting the gut, probiotics can also help support the immune system.

"Those who suffer from chronic constipation or irritable bowel syndrome may find value in incorporating probiotics into their diets," Dubost says.

Where can you find them?

By now, you're probably aware of advertisements for yogurt that contains probiotic bacteria. You can also find dietary supplements that claim to have probiotics in them. As consumer interest in this beneficial bacteria has grown, so too have the number and variety of products that claim to provide a dose of probiotics, including cereal, juice, and granola.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration does not require food labels to show which strain or species of probiotic bacteria are in a product, so it can be difficult to find products that might help with certain digestive issues. If you're interested in a specific product, consider contacting the manufacturer or going to the company's website for more information on what strain of probiotics the product contains and what studies have been done on its health benefits.

What should you look for when selecting a food with probiotics?

"Research into the health benefits of probiotics is really in its very early stages," Dubost says. "More research is needed to really understand how these bacteria work, what their benefits are and what an effective 'dose' might be for a broad demographic of people who might wish to consume probiotics for their health benefits."

It's currently unclear as to how much probiotics one needs to consume on a regular basis in order to see the health benefits, and that amount could vary from person to person. But, Dubost says, symptoms of diarrhea, constipation, urinary tract infections or irritable bowel syndrome may ease in a week to two weeks if you take probiotics. If you don't see benefits in that time frame, try a different strain. Try to determine the probiotic bacteria and strain a product contains; that will help you know if it might be beneficial for your specific health needs.

Finally, Dubost adds, look for probiotics in foods that offer other health benefits. Yogurt or milk that contain probiotics, for example, are also excellent sources of protein and calcium.

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