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The scoop on probiotics

The scoop on probioticsProbiotics are showing up in all kinds of foods and drinks, including yogurts and smoothies. Even some chocolates and granola bars are now crawling with those "good bacteria."

But do you really need probiotics in your diet? Are organic yogurts and smoothies with probiotics actually healthy choices? Here are some answers.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms similar to those naturally found in people’s intestines. They can help restore the body’s bacterial balance when it’s thrown off, for example, by antibiotics, or by bacteria that cause illnesses. That’s why they are sometimes used to help with gastrointestinal problems and to prevent urinary tract infections. The probiotics in foods and supplements are very much like the organisms that already live in the human gut.

Europeans and Asians have been big believers in the power of fermented dairy products to promote health. Now that the probiotics craze has hit the U.S., you can find many foods laced with the good bacteria, including juices, pizza, and many powders, and capsules sold as dietary supplements.

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In Consumer Reports taste tests, trained panelists tried 11 yogurts (four of them Greek-style, generally thicker and higher in protein) and three smoothies. All were strawberry except for strawberry-banana Chobani. At an outside lab, testers measured the levels of three types of probiotic bacteria in those products and in four probiotic supplements. To ensure that the probiotics are made available to the body, they also tested the pills for disintegration.

Two organic yogurts tested were judged very good: Stonyfield Organic Low Fat Fruit on the Bottom and Stonyfield Oikos Organic. But the two Stonyfield fat-free products were judged only mediocre, with little dairy flavor.

Two organic smoothies, Trader Joe’s Organic Lowfat Probiotic Smoothie and Stonyfield Organic Super Smoothie, also were judged very good.

What’s the deal with strange bacteria names?

Foods and supplements with probiotics don’t all contain the same types of microorganisms, and there are hundreds of kinds. A probiotic is designated first by its genus (for example, Lactobacillus), then by its species (such as I) and its strain (often a combination of letters or numbers, such as GG).

For example, Bifidobacterium (genus) infantis (species) 35624 (strain) is the listed probiotic in the supplement Align Digestive Care. Some of the most common commercially available probiotic bacteria come from two genera, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which are also the most widely studied types.

To make their probiotic products stand out, some manufacturers will sometimes create a trademarked name (indicated by ™ or ®) for the strain found in their product. But that’s just an alias for the probiotic strain and doesn’t necessarily reflect product quality, according to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP).

Are they safe?

Probiotic foods and dietary supplements are safe for generally healthy people, says Mary Ellen Sanders, Ph.D., executive director of ISAPP. But you should consult a physician before taking probiotics if you’re pregnant or have a compromised immune system or other illness.

Should you be eating more probiotics?

You don’t necessarily need to add probiotics to your diet to stay healthy, although nutritionists might encourage making probiotics part of a daily diet to aid good digestion and support immunity. Probiotics might help with many conditions, including infectious diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, infection with helicobacter pylori bacteria, ulcerative colitis and respiratory infections.

The evidence is strongest for helping with diarrhea-related conditions, but people take probiotics for many reasons. Clinical trials have examined only a handful of the hundreds of probiotic strains.

In general, yogurt is a good source of calcium and protein. (The Greek yogurts have 10 to 14 grams of protein per serving compared with 3 to 10 grams in the other yogurts and smoothies.) Yogurt is also fairly low in calories and fat.

How to choose?

Ask a doctor. If he or she suggests that you try probiotics, ask which one and how much to take. Picking the right probiotic foods and supplements is important because they don’t all contain the same strains of bacteria, and that can affect how well they work for you. When you’re shopping for probiotic products, read the labels. Here’s what to look for:

• The genus, species, and strain
• How many colony forming units (CFUs) were present per serving at the time of manufacture and how many will be present through the shelf life of the product
• A "best by" or expiration date
• A suggested serving
• The health benefits, possibly including references to human studies for the strains contained in the product
• Storage instructions (some probiotic supplements may require refrigeration)
• Manufacturer contact info

If you’ve been prescribed antibiotics, probiotics are more likely to be most effective if you consume them no less than 2 hours after you take the medication.

Keep in mind that probiotics are generally considered dietary supplements or food, and they aren’t regulated as strongly as drugs are. Any claim made on a product, no matter how general, is supposed to be truthful and substantiated, but not all manufacturers abide by that. (The Federal Trade Commission issued a complaint against Dannon in 2010 for allegedly exaggerating health benefits in its ads for Activia yogurt and DanActive dairy drink. Dannon has since changed its ads.)

In its guidelines for health professionals, the World Gastroenterology Organization warns of "significant gaps" for some probiotic products between what research has shown to be effective and what is claimed in the marketplace. So keep in mind that some products might not pack enough of a probiotic punch to be effective, and you might want to try different products to see which one works best for you.

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