It's Alive! Probiotics Are Growing for Food Processors

New research shows putting bugs in your food is a better idea than you probably thought.

By David Feder, RD, Technical Editor

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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.

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.

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.

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