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Feature Thu Aug 02 2007

Probiotics 101

What’s up with those Activia commercials that claim yogurt can make you “regular”?

I got an email from a friend of mine who had seen the Activia commercials about bowel regularity and was wondering what kind of crazy story Dannon was trying to sell. “How does that Activia keep you ‘moving’ without fiber?” Well, I responded, “Dannon includes a special strain of live bacteria that promotes bowel movements by decreasing intestinal transit time.” When my friend was more disgusted by the thought of something alive in her food than my explanation, I knew I had to write something about probiotics. Although the product is new people have been consuming probiotics for centuries.

What are Probiotics?
Probiotics, meaning “for life”, are living microorganisms (yes, they are alive) found in cultured dairy products like yogurt. They are commonly referred to as “friendly bacteria” and are defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”

There is a long history of their therapeutic and preservative use dating back to Roman times. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that people became more aware of their health benefits. In 1907 Elie Metchnikoff, the Russian Nobel prize winner introduced the concept of probiotics hypothesizing that the consumption of fermented milk products seemed to be a common denominator in the diets of Bulgarians who had increased longevity. His findings lead to the industrial development of yogurt, as well as the marketing of probiotics.

There are several health benefits associated with the consumption of probiotics. Probiotics help balance the microflora in the intestines. Research shows that probiotics possibly decrease the likelihood of getting certain kinds of cancers as well as increasing your lifespan. There is also evidence that consumption of probiotics reduces the symptoms of inflammatory conditions of the bowe and may decrease the prevalence of certain allergies, even lactose intolerance. Probiotics may enhance the availability of nutrients in foods, help synthesize B vitamins, improve cholesterol levels, and inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria or pathogens that can cause illness.

Keep in mind that your gastrointestinal (GI) tract plays a significant role in your overall health. When this system is healthy it will more effectively weed out toxins (like pathogens) and draw in nutrients. A healthy GI tract will also ensure regularity. Probiotics help strengthen the GI system when consumed in large enough amounts and in a form that survives the digestive process (in order to enter the digestive system alive). The probiotic in Activia specifically shows a strong correlation between bowel regularity and consumption of the product.

The Activia claim.
Activia may be new to us in the US but it has been on the shelves in Europe for some time. I remember trying it in France a while back. Activia is the only fermented dairy product that contains the probiotic Bifidus Regularis a stronger bacteria strain from the Bifidobacterium family. According to Dannon, if you consume their product once a day for two weeks you will have enhanced regularity, and if you continue to consume it, the benefits will also continue. Always skeptical, I read the peer-reviewed studies cited on their Web site, and these claims seem founded. Does this mean that the new product from Dannon is better than old-fashioned yogurt? After all didn’t all of this talk about the benefits of yogurt start with the hypothesis that Bulgarians lived long healthy lives because of their consumption fermented dairy products? You have to wonder.

Although it doesn’t seem common I have heard a few people complaining about “bowel discomfort” after consuming this product. With this said remember that everyone tolerates foods differently and although it is a possibility that doesn’t mean it will happen. Just be aware.

How do I know if probiotics are in my food?

Most probiotic products will claim them on the label. A closer look at the ingredients may also turn up Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterius, the two most common probiotics that are added to “functional foods” or nutritional supplements. Most fermented foods naturally contain probiotics, so the bacteria may not be listed as ingredients. Buttermilk, yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese and even fresh sauerkraut are common examples of fermented food.

Not all yogurts are created equal.
In order for yogurt to have the benefits of the probiotics a label should read, “contains live and active cultures." This voluntary seal says that there are significant amounts of these two probiotics in the product you are consuming. According to the National Yogurt Association, refrigerated yogurt products with this seal have at least 100 million cultures per gram of the product when manufactured. Frozen products with the seal should have at least 10 million cultures per gram, which is still a lot of friendly bacteria. Does this mean that there are probably yogurts out there with out the seal that have adequate amounts of culture? Maybe. When in doubt choose a product that has the seal.

Some probiotic products:
Activia by Dannon. Activia is at most grocery stores in the Chicago area. I have also seen it recently at Costco.
DanActive by Dannon is a probiotic dairy beverage. Danactive contains 10 million L. casei Immunitas™ in each bottle and is available at Whole Foods.
Lifeway has several products, including my personal favorite Kefir, that contains probiotics. Lifeway claims to be the only real kefir product in the USA and is available at most grocery stores in Illinois.
Cascade yogurt contains eight live and active cultures in each cup. Cascade is available at whole foods.
Attune Bars are tasty little treats that offer 20% of your daily calcium with five times the live and active cultures in yogurt, for 100 calories! With flavors like chocolate crisp and chocolate mint they are a healthier way to satisfy a sweet tooth than a candy bar. You can purchase these online or at Whole Foods in the yogurt section.

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Matt / August 2, 2007 10:26 PM

Attune bars are REALLY good, chocolate crisp is the best flavor.

john corbin / August 4, 2007 10:22 AM

Always wondered why others were so irregular this explains alot.

E Mayer / August 7, 2007 9:20 AM

Never thought reading about bowel habits could be so, uh, interesting!

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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