Probiotics: Not As Beneficial As You Might Think

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Probiotics are the good, positive bacteria inside our bodies that help with digestion. For a bacteria to be considered "probiotic," there needs to be evidence of its health benefits when taken in adequate amounts. "Digestive health is really the only core benefit of many probiotics," says Mary Ellen Sanders, a food science researcher who spends time examining probiotics. Many probiotic products claim to support other areas in the body, including brain function and the immune system. And there's really no evidence that supports that claim.

"Because the effects of probiotics vary broadly, and immune-system effects are incredibly diverse, immune-system boost should not be considered a core benefit of probiotics," Sanders said. Even if a bacteria strand has the potential to offer health benefits, many companies label their food as "probiotic" without any supporting research or evidence. The largest two examples of false probiotic claims are in yogurts and fermented foods.

"There's much folklore around the health benefits of fermented food," Sanders told Live Science. "Blue cheese may have lots of really neat microbes in it, but you can't call it a probiotic until research shows there is a benefit associated with it."

This is also the case with yogurt, whose natural probiotics die during the pasteurization process. Brands that want to keep the "probiotic" label on their yogurt add live cultures such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. "Those organisms are added because they actually have the benefit of surviving the intestinal transit, so they can make it into your colon," Saunders said. It is only these yogurts that have true "probiotic" value.

So what do companies need to do before they claim their product contains "probiotics?" "You can't do a fairy-dust approach here; it has to be in suitable quantity to have health benefits. Probiotics require that the organism be alive, and be substantiated to have a health benefit," Sanders said.

Next time you go out shopping for probiotic foods, check to make sure there are a significant amount of live active cultures, or else you're not really doing your body any favors.

Image via ThinkStock

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