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.
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.
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."
In addition to milk and yogurts, Ganeden's BC30 has been used in chocolates, soups, muffins, protein bars, teas, ice creams and dog foods.
"For a probiotic strain to be successful, it must fulfill certain requirements or criteria that improve a probiotic's functionality in the intestine/digestive tract and enhance its survival in the product," explains Peggy Steele, global business director for Danisco USA Inc. (www.danisco.com), Madison, Wis. "These criteria include being safe for human consumption, the ability to resist acid and bile, having clinically proven health benefits and possessing technological properties that allow survival in the final consumer product.
Danisco's Howaru line meets those criteria with its trademarked L. acidophilus NCFM, B. lactis HN019 and L. rhamnosus HN001 bacteria.
"For probiotics to survive processing, they should be added at a point in the process when there are no more heating steps and the product has been cooled," Steele continues. "Distribution and storage temperatures should then be in the refrigeration range. If pH can be adjusted up — typically to below 3.8 — survivability can be greatly enhanced. At lower pH levels, high overages may be necessary in order to achieve desired shelf life."
Other factors that can influence survivability include water activity (beverage dry blends are an excellent format for probiotic delivery), oxygen content, metabolic carbohydrates, mechanical stress during processing, plus impact from other additives (colors, flavors, salt, etc.) and inoculation practices.
Microencapsulation also has been gaining ground as scientists refine the technique of enclosing bacteria in protective polysaccharide (such as alginates) coatings, allowing the microbes to be used in products such as cereals, baked goods and spreads.
Probiotics can work in the mouth. Frutarom USA (www.frutarom.com), North Bergen, N.J., recently launched its Blis M18, "a patented oral cavity probiotic for complete oral protection by providing advanced protection for the mouth and teeth." Blis M18 is derived from the Staphylococcus salivarius microorganism.
In one application, a chewable tablet dissolves in the mouth to provide probiotic defense for the ears, nose and throat.
Next Foods Inc., Boulder, Colo., and its GoodBelly (www.goodbelly.com) division took the idea of patented and specialized pobiotic strains and applied it to a unique fruit drink that is similar to kefir but nondairy. It also is soy-free and loaded with probiotics and multi-vitamins. Each serving of GoodBelly an impressive 20 billion live and active probiotic cultures "clinically proven to restore the balance of gut flora in the intestinal tract and promote immunity." The product's primary probiotic is Lactobacillus plantarum 299v.
Non-dairy beverages have actually been one of the fastest growing probiotic segments over the past several years. Says Danisco's Steele, "As more consumers learn about the various health benefits of daily probiotic consumption, we'll continue to see strong demand for probiotic-fortified products across all categories."