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By Nancy Wozny
Healthy probiotic options
Roam the dairy section of any supermarket and you’ll spot labels all over that say “with probiotics.” And it’s not only in the dairy aisle. Visit the candy section and you’ll even find a probiotic-enriched chocolate mint bar.
Probiotics are the latest health benefit to be touted by food packagers. Our bodies come with a healthy supply of these intestinal bacteria, which aid digestion and help the body’s immune system. But from time to time the body needs a boost. “Preliminary research has shown that manipulating the gut flora by ingesting certain probiotic strains may be beneficial in preventing and treating several conditions,” says Selina Shah, MD, a physician at Center of Sports Medicine, St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, CA. But not all products that claim probiotic benefits are the best way to supplement the body’s own supply.
Good Bacteria, Bad Bacteria
Probiotics thrive in live fermented cultures like yogurt, as well as in your intestines. “They help you more readily absorb vitamins and minerals and control bad bacteria,” says Ally Wagner, a nutritionist who works with dancers from Cincinnati Ballet. Yogurt is no longer the only option for supplementing probiotics. Now there are drinks that tout their probiotic content, vitamins and pills you can take, and—for those with a serious sweet tooth—lots of frozen yogurt brands. “These strains of bacteria are able to ‘live’ in specific dairy products due to their chemical makeup and properties,” says Wagner.
Short Shelf Life
However, not all products that claim probiotic benefits offer the best way to get them.“Look for products with strains from lactobacillus or bifidobacterium species, and also check the expiration date,” says Wagner. “The closer to expiration, the less probiotics will be found in the food. Research has shown that many products do not have viable probiotics, and consumers need to be aware. The shelf life of refrigerated probiotics is three to six weeks, and the amount of bacteria will decrease over time.”
Despite the assortment of products, experts still favor the tried and true. “The best way to get probiotics remains yogurt,” says Wagner. She is also a big fan of Kefir, a tasty fermented milk product that contains several kinds of healthy bacteria, such as lactobacillus. “The combination of Kefir’s different strands of bacteria seem to make this product a bit more powerful,” says Wagner. “Kefir delivers more probiotics than yogurt simply due to its chemical makeup.”
Sugar-Free Bacteria Boost
While adding probiotic-enriched foods to your diet has few downsides, you need to use your judgment. “Just because a product claims to have probiotics, doesn’t mean it is good for you,” Wagner says. “A chocolate bar that has probiotics does not change the fact that it’s still loaded with sugar and fat.” Always check: There are many probiotic drinks, bars, and yogurt brands where sugar is the second ingredient on the label. (Labels list ingredients in descending order of proportion.)
Since supplements like probiotics are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, it’s hard to evaluate packaging claims. Sticking with simple options like plain, low-fat yogurt or Kefir should help keep your body in balance without adding unneeded calories.
Nancy Wozny writes about health and the arts from Houston.
It may be tempting to forgo dairy products when you can pop a calcium tablet, but think again. Many dancers take calcium supplements to protect their bones, but a recent study published in the journal Heart reported that calcium absorbed from food has a healthier impact than calcium supplements. The latter can lead to a 30 percent increase in heart attacks for those taking 500 or more milligrams a day. It’s yet another reason to hit the yogurt section in the supermarket.
Think you know all the benefits of red wine? Now researchers are flagging yet another ingredient: probiotics. A recent study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that red wine can benefit your intestinal system by encouraging the growth of that “good bacteria.” And there’s more: Red wine can also lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation.