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If you’ve bought yogurt recently, you’ve probably noticed that the word “probiotic” is now prominently displayed on many of the containers. You have also likely heard that probiotics are good to have in your diet. But do you know exactly what probiotics are and why you might need them?

This article provides information about probiotics for those who are interested in choosing probiotic foods to help promote and maintain optimal health.

What Probiotics Do
Research shows that we need to have “friendly” bacteria in our bodies to remain healthy. One such type of beneficial bacteria is probiotic bacteria. Probiotic bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli inhibit the growth of disease-causing bacteria, particularly those responsible for gastrointestinal infections and bowel disease.

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“We used to eat a lot more fermented foods that contain beneficial bacteria, but now we are getting hardly any,” says Karen Madsen, an associate professor of gastroenterology at the University of Alberta. “Now we are starting to put it back in.”

Madsen specializes in researching the causes and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). She has found that some IBD patients respond positively to probiotics.

“Probiotics modulate the immune system, which is disregulated in patients with IBD,” says Madsen. “They can also help the immune system fight off conditions such as infectious diarrhea.”

Michael Gänzle, an assistant professor of food microbiology and probiotics at the University of Alberta, agrees with Madsen’s observation that probiotic bacteria play a role in enhancing immunity. “When there are no bacteria interacting in our bodies, the immune system is running idle,” he says.

Including Probiotics in Your Diet
The best-known sources of probiotics are yogurt that contains live bacteria culture and cheese that is not baked. (Sorry, pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches don’t count!)

Probiotics can also be found in kefir, a fermented milk drink.

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Gänzle says probiotic capsules are another option. But going this route can involve higher costs and quality control issues. “It is often difficult to know what you are really buying,” he says, “as these products are not regulated like prescription medicines.”

When you’re shopping for yogurt, look for brands that contain probiotic bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli. In your weekly menus you may want to include some breakfast sundaes made with this yogurt, and perhaps some containers of kefir as afternoon snacks.

This sounds simple, and to some extent it is. But there are several challenges involved.

As Madsen points out, you have to keep ingesting probiotics all the time. “They have to be a steady part of your diet,” she says. “They might remain in your gut anywhere from a day to a month. Everyone is different.”

Another concern is the amount of probiotic bacteria that a product actually contains. “The term probiotic is not regulated,” Gänzle says, “so it can mean anything. A product might contain one million active cultures per gram or 100 million. In addition, probiotics have a limited shelf life, so the challenge is to keep them alive in high enough numbers.”

Gänzle also notes that not all strains work for everyone. Madsen adds, “The results of taking probiotics are not only very strain-dependent but also very concentration-dependent.”

And finally, the amount of prebiotics in your diet can be a factor as well.

Prebiotics
Prebiotics like inulin, a plant fibre, are now being added to foods such as cereal, bread, fruit drinks and juice. They are also found naturally in whole wheat, onions and leeks.

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Prebiotics feed probiotic bacteria, thereby helping them grow and reproduce. However, prebiotics have no benefit unless there are probiotic bacteria to eat them, since the human body does not absorb them as nutrients.

As with products containing probiotics, it is often difficult to know how many prebiotics are really in a food product.

Keep it Real
Probiotics are sometimes promoted as cure-alls that can help every health challenge from obesity to cancer.

The hype about probiotics is “not all nonsense, but probiotics are not a miracle cure either,” says Madsen.

Certainly it’s well worth your time to learn about probiotics and add them to your diet. “Some brands of grocery-store yogurt contain probiotic strains that stimulate the immune system,” Madsen says.

You can educate yourself by carefully reading labels, lists of ingredients and best-before dates. You might also want to visit the websites for specific products to get more information.

Use a trial-and-error approach, advises Gänzle. “Try eating a product, and see if you feel better,” he says. And if you find something that seems to work, keep in mind that you have to eat it regularly. A one-serving container of yogurt every month or so is not going to help.

The Bottom Line
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria found in foods such as yogurt that play a role in promoting health and preventing disease. Choosing foods that contain probiotics is a simple way to benefit from these microscopic health helpers.

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Always remember, though, that health depends on a multitude of factors. One of them is nutrition. Others are regular exercise and adequate rest. Also, there is no single food you can eat to solve all your health problems. Rather you should eat a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods including vegetables, fruit, whole-grain products, milk, lean meats and alternatives.

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Learn More
What Are Probiotics?
HealthLinkBC provides this overview of probiotics.

What are functional foods and nutraceuticals?
Information from the Dietitians of Canada. Probiotics are an example of a nutraceutical.

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