You need bugs. Specifically, your body needs the friendly microbes that perform a number of symbiotic functions, without which you'd be dead. Having taken on the less off-putting epithet of "probiotics" -- versus "microbes," "friendly bacteria" or "beneficial micro-organisms" -- the critters under this modern sobriquet number in the scores of species. All display — some were specifically developed to display — special health benefits.
According to the World Health Organization and other health groups, probiotics are defined as "live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host."
Originally, they were used for relief of such unmentionable symptoms as diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome or colitis, as well as bringing calcium and vitamin D into the diets of persons with lactose intolerance or sensitivity. Scientists added to the bacterial benefits list protection from harmful bacteria overgrowth, cancers of the gastrointestinal tract and high cholesterol.
More recent studies show probiotics can help counter systemic inflammation, celiac symptoms, yeast infections, obesity and hypertension while stemming infections (both bacterial and viral) and boosting immunity … maybe even athletic performance.
Probiotics also show strong action against the Helicobacter pylori bacterium now known to be responsible for more than eight in 10 cases of stomach ulcers. Ongoing research has suggested the good bugs we eat may even help against childhood asthma, tooth decay and gum disease, although the conclusions still are mixed.
Probiotics as an ingredient are a direct offshoot of the yogurt boom a generation ago that put "live active cultures" literally on the lips of most Americans. Visions of 105-year-old Soviet Georgia mountain shepherds in a 1977 Dannon commercial accompanied the announcement that the "No. 1 yogurt" had arrived in America. Sales quickly shot up higher than the Caucasus mountains where the ads were filmed. Check out the original here:
The early success was not, however, accompanied by acknowledgment that what made yogurt so wonderful was species of one-celled organisms in the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and other families. It took a few years for manufacturers to bring visions of parasites into the sell. Science helped that. Before the 1970s, only a handful of studies looked at the health benefits of probiotics. Since then, thousands of such studies were done. Virtually all concluded probiotics provide healthful benefits. The research opened the door to a number of benefits and other bacteria species in the microscopic world of probiotics.
The Good Guys
While food safety gurus work ever harder to avoid bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli, the R&D eggheads are working equally hard to add to the army of good and beneficial bacteria. Here's just a partial list of the health-promoting microbes available for food & beverage products. Lactobacillus (such as L. casei, L. bulgaricus, L. rhamnosus, L. acidophilus), Bifidobacterium (e.g., B. animalis and B. coagulans), Saccharomyces (S. boulardii) and even some strains whose names might promote fear but actually wear the white hat — benign species of Escherichia coli and Streptococcus (specifically, S. thermophilus).
Yogurt stayed in the forefront of pushing live bacteria and digestive health to consumers. All proclaim the "live and active cultures," but Dannon's Activia, introduced in 2006, and similar product DanActive brought the marketing (and health claims) to new heights – so much so that Dannon settled lawsuits and an inquiry from the Federal Trade Commission by no longer claiming that the products are clinically proven to relieve temporary irregularity or that they slow intestinal transit.
Activia is made with a dose of billions of Bifidus regularis (Bifidobacterium Lactis DN 173-010). While there are several varieties of Activia under the Dannon brand, the company recently launched an organic version under the Stonyfield Farm brand, which parent Danone also owns.
Beyond yogurt For manufacturers, however, processing limitations restricted the use of probiotics mostly to dairy products, while also limiting the effectiveness in general of any probiotic-enhanced product. This is because few of the poor creatures made it through processing, and fewer still made it to the part of the digestive tract where they did the most good — the intestines.
Heat and acid can be the biggest barriers. Stomach acid can be overcome via two approaches: marshalling an army of billions of live cultures, knowing that the 5-10 percent that made it past the stomach would proliferate well in the rest of the digestive tract; or discovering or developing strains of bacteria (such as Lactobacillus gasseri) that have a knack for surviving harsh conditions.
With all the benefits being discovered in probiotics, one in particular might prove welcome for the coming fall cold season. Danisco's probiotic B. lactis Bl-04 was determined in a study to "reduce the duration and severity of common cold symptoms among healthy, physically active adults." The study demonstrated reductions in the incidence, duration and severity of upper respiratory tract illnesses. Chest illness severity and medication use also were reduced substantially.
Even with these methods, applications were fairly limited because any high-heat processing killed live bacteria. But the growing consumer interest in probiotics pushed technology to find new strains and techniques so that today few foods or beverages are unable to harbor bacteria that are desirable rather than front-page scandals.
One case in point is the Dairy Balance Milk With Probiotics line from Foster Farms Dairy (www.fosterfarmsdairy.com), Modesto, Calif. Dairy Balance is one of the few probiotic-enhanced milks available. It uses Cleveland-based Ganeden Biotech Inc.'s (www.ganedenlabs.com) BC30 patented probiotic ingredient.
"BC-30 is a strain of Bacillus coagulens discovered and isolated from a parent strain in Japan in the early 1900s," explains Mike Bush, vice president of business development of Ganeden. "It was tested against other strains and optimized for food formulations by Ganeden and is one of the company's 105 probiotic patents.
"Unlike many probiotic strains, BC30 is a spore-forming organism," Bush says. "In the center of the cell is a spore that protects the genetic material against heat, pressure and freezing. It survives the high acid environment of the stomach as well as harsh manufacturing conditions."
As Bush explains, once BC30 passes the stomach and passes into the GI tract, the spores germinate and produce viable cells. "It also has knack for using a wide variety of food sources, not just the typical carbs but other sugar molecules as well as proteins," he adds. "Clinical research shows it supports digestive health and immune function."