Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The probiotic trend

Today’s marketing experts are so savvy, they can get us to want to eat bacteria, just by dropping buzz words like “numerous health benefits,” “clinically proven,” and my personal favorite, “boost the immune system.”

We don’t mind eating what we would normally call germs when they are given the scientific-sounding name “probiotics.”

Whether the stuff actually works, or consumers are being duped, is hard to say, but sales of food products containing probiotics have taken off in the last 2 years. One market leader, Activia by Dannon, had a 48% increase in sales in 2007, according to Brendan Borrell in the LA Times (May 12, 2008).

What are probiotics? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines probiotics as "live microorganisms that when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host." This leaves very little room for skepticism, since by definition, probiotics are good for you.

A common source of probiotics is yogurt. Companies are winning over consumers by promising that their yogurt regulates the digestive system (Activia) and helps “strengthen your body's defenses” (DanActive).

Can probiotic products really deliver these benefits? Companies that sell these products conduct research to support their promises, and surprise, surprise! Company-funded research shows positive effects on the immune (Culturelle) and digestive systems (Procter & Gamble and Dannon).

Consumers should be aware that there are many different strains of bacteria. Different strains can have different effects. Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14, for example, can fight vaginal infections; Lactobacillus casei, found in DanActive, has been shown to reduce diarrhea in children; and Bifidobacterium animalis, used in Activia, reduces constipation.

Some companies boast benefits which were demonstrated in a completely different strain. To make it even harder for consumers to inform themselves, companies often use scientific-sounding trademark names for their products.

Another thing the companies don’t print on the labels is that you have to eat a LOT of yogurt to get the promised benefits. Dannon’s 2002 report claimed that women who ate 3 cups of Activia yogurt per day exhibited more frequent bowel movements than when they ate the same amount of yogurt without the probiotic.

Three cups per day!

Huge amounts of probiotic yogurt are probably necessary because plain yogurt itself, without probiotics, helps to regulate the digestive system.

In order to be called yogurt in the United States, it must contain certain strains of bacteria. These bacteria help prevent indigestion that many people suffer while taking antibiotics.

Normal yogurt is also good for people with lactose intolerance, since the bacteria produce the enzyme that breaks down lactose.


Erik said...

So if I start eating yogurt regularly I could start eating cereal with real milk?

Jennifer said...

Sorry, but I don't think it works like that. Yogurt contains the enzyme you need to break down lactose, so you may be able to tolerate yogurt better than milk. You could have yogurt on your cereal! It's better than it sounds, if you mix a bit of sugar in plain yogurt. Other products you might be more tolerant of are hard cheeses, like swiss or cheddar cheese, which contain less lactose than milk.

Jennifer said...

If you want the benefits of yogurt, but don't like eating it plain, try making a smoothie: blend 1 cup of yogurt, 1/2 tsp sugar, 1-2 drops vanilla, 1/2 banana, and 1/2 cup frozen blueberries. Healthy, yummy, and refreshing. Can't eat bananas? Try substituting the blueberries and banana for 3/4 - 1 cup frozen raspberries, and add a dash of milk.