Eat Beat

Probiotics: Beneficial Bugs Gain U.S. Foothold

by Althea Zanecosky

On Grocery Store Shelves

Dannon Activia, the first line of yogurt actively marketed with probiotics to aid regularity, was introduced in U.S. stores last year. Probiotic foods have been popular in Europe and Asia for decades. In fact, Activia has been sold overseas since 1987.

Challenges in replicating that success in the U.S., include an American public that eats far less yogurt than Europeans and relies far more on pills rather than food and natural remedies to remain healthy.

Still, given Activia’s U.S. popularity and the growing demand for new health products, some experts say probiotics have the potential to be the next oat bran, which became a food sensation in the 1980s after it was shown to lower cholesterol levels.

Other food makers offer products with probiotics, including these:

Nestlé Good Start Natural Cultures. Mothers have a new way to provide protective benefits to their infants with the launch of the first baby formula in the U.S. with probiotics. While breastmilk is the ideal food for infants, for babies who do not receive the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, Good Start Natural Cultures provides bifidus Bl, which can help support a baby’s healthy immune system and support the natural protective barrier in a baby’s digestive tract.

Tropical Mango Naked Juice Probiotic. A leader in the super-premium juice category, Naked Juice just introduced this100 percent juice smoothie with the probiotic bifido-bacterium and a prebiotic.

Kraft LiveActive Cheese. Kraft now offers a new line of snack cheese sticks and cubes that contain probiotics. Three flavors that kids enjoy, cheddar, mozzarella, and colby jack, contain both bifidobacterium lactus and lactobacillus rhamnosius.

More than 100 companies in the U.S. now market probiotic supplements. Talk with your health care provider before purchasing them.

In the past decade the growing awareness of the relationship between diet and health has led to an increasing demand for food products that go beyond providing basic nutrition. Consumers are looking for foods that can improve health. These products are known as functional foods.

One category of functional foods is probiotics and prebiotics, which sometimes are already present in foods, and, more recently, can be added to foods.

Probiotics are “good” bacteria that help maintain the natural balance of microflora, organisms in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The GI tract contains about 400 types of bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful microoganisms and promote a healthy digestive system.

The largest group of probiotic bacteria in the intestine is lactic acid bacteria, of which lactobacillus acidophilus, found in yogurt, is the best known. Yeast is also a probiotic substance. Probiotics are also available as dietary supplements.

Prebiotics are not bacteria. They are carbohydrates that serve as “food” for probiotic bacteria. Together, probiotics and prebiotics that support their growth are called synbiotics. They work in a synergistic way to promote the probiotics’ benefits more effectively.

Recognition of probiotic effects date back to the 19th century French scientist Louis Pasteur, later reinforced in work done by 1908 Nobel Prize-winner Elie Metchnikoff.

The benefits of prebiotics have come to light in more recent years. Modern day research has shown that probiotics can be used to treat problems in the stomach and intestine. Researchers are now searching for probiotics working alone or in combination to treat other diseases.

Already in our Food
Probiotic microorganisms have been used as bacteria and yeasts for thousands of years to ferment foods.

Certain yogurts and other cultured dairy products contain these helpful bacteria, particularly specific strains of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. Prebiotics are found naturally in many foods, and can also be isolated from plants or produced from other food sources. For a food ingredient to be classified as a prebiotic, it must not break down in the stomach or be absorbed in the GI tract; must be fermented by the gastrointestinal microflora; and must stimulate the growth or activity of intestinal bacteria associated with health.

The table below shows foods that naturally contain probiotcs and prebiotics.

Today, foods containing added probiotics and prebiotcs are commonly found and consumed elsewhere in the world — especially in Japan and Europe. In the U.S., more and more of these foods are being introduced into the marketplace.


Potential Benefit

Certain yogurts, cultured dairy products, cheese, & some non-dairy applications May improve gastrointestinal health and systemic immunity
Whole grains, onions, bananas, garlic, honey, leeks, artichokes, fortified foods & beverages, dietary supplements & other food application May improve gastrointestinal health; may improve calcium absorption
Adapted from International Food Information Council Foundation’s Media Guide on Food Safety and Nutrition: 2004-2006.
*Examples are not an all-inclusive list

Benefits of Probiotics
The main reason most people use probiotics is to prevent diarrhea caused by antibiotics. Antibiotics kill beneficial bacteria along with the bacteria that cause illness. A decrease in beneficial bacteria may lead to diarrhea.

Taking probiotics in food or supplements (capsules, powder, or liquid extract) may help replace the lost beneficial bacteria and thus help prevent diarrhea. A decrease in
beneficial bacteria may also lead to development of other infections, such as vaginal yeast and urinary tract infections.

Research has shown that probiotics may help reduce:

The symptoms of bloating and diarrhea from lactose intolerance.
Diarrhea in infants with rotavirus enteritis.
Inflammation of the ileal pouch (pouchitis) that may occur in people who have had surgery to remove the colon.

Other studies suggest that eventually probiotics may also be used to:

Help with other causes of diarrhea.
Prevent infections in the digestive tract.
• Control immune response (inflammation), as in inflammatory bowel disease.

Scientists are now studying the use of probiotics in the prevention of colon cancer and investigating the cholesterol-lowering effect from cultured dairy products. And while the principal effect of prebiotics in the diet is to promote the growth and proliferation of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract, they have also been shown to increase the absorption of certain minerals such as calcium and magnesium.

While people do not require probiotics to be well, there is mounting evidence that probiotics can help people stay healthy in certain ways, such as improving immune function, maintaining normal GI function and preventing infection.

Althea Zanecosky is a Philadelphia registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.