By Jessica Yadegaran, Contra Costa Times
Sharon Pauli didn’t think twice when a veterinarian recently prescribed probiotics for her Boston terrier’s upset stomach due to food poisoning. Like us, animals can benefit from the “good bacteria” these microorganisms help to replace in a compromised gut.
When Pauli, of Concord, did an Internet search on the term, she was surprised to see it pop up on labels for such nonedible products as skin cream, soil boosters and cleaning products.
“I associate probiotics with yogurt and tummy trouble,” she says. “So how can you benefit from them if you don’t eat them?”
The answer is tricky. The World Health Organization defines probiotics as live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. Trillions of bacteria live in the mouth, skin, intestines, and genital tract of humans. They help to break down and absorb nutrients, and they are known to promote digestive health and immunity.
Companies that make noningestible products are promoting probiotics as a way to ensure a healthy environment — be it a flower bed or kitchen counter — where “good” bacteria dominate and kill harmful microorganisms just as they do in the gut. The question is how necessary are these products, and is probiotic simply the next catchphrase in the healthy-natural-organic movement?
“I’m afraid that the word ‘probiotic’ seems to be in vogue these days, but horribly overused and misrepresented,” says Maria Marco, an assistant professor of food microbiology at UC Davis. She studies the Lactobacillus strain for human consumption and investigates the use of similar bacteria on plants. Another common strain for consumption is Bifidobacterium.
One company’s website asserts that its cleaners and soil boosters contain probiotics that improve crop performance and nutrition uptake and enrich the soil. The products may do those things, but the company’s website does not list the strains of probiotics or confirm that they are alive in the product.
“I’m not saying they are harmful or that a positive effect won’t be found by using the products,” Marco says, “but it is just that their use of the term ‘probiotics’ might cause it to become so generic that it might not carry a substantive meaning. We’d need to study this more to figure out how and why it works.”
Registered dietitian Keiy Murofushi doesn’t refute the claims for GUM PerioBalance Probiotic Oral Health Lozenges, which “reduce plaque and promote healthy teeth and gums” when dissolved on the tongue for 10 minutes.
“Oral balance can be disrupted by everyday events such as stress, illness, poor diet, and inadequate oral hygiene,” says Evelina Leece, senior marketing manager for Sunstar, which promotes GUM, via email. According to Leece, each lozenge contains two strains of Lactobacillus reuteri, which are supposed to inhibit oral pathogens and help to rebalance the oral environment.
The field of probiotics is evolving, and research is ongoing. What we do know is that the more we can get probiotics and the good lactic acid bacteria found in yogurt and other fermented foods into our diets, the better. Stress and antibiotic use can disrupt the natural balance of good bacteria in the body, leading to constipation, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems.
Although beneficial strains of probiotics have been available as dietary supplements for years — and are added to everything from cereal and chocolate to yogurt and cultured milk products — it is important to note that the benefits are strain-specific. They are always listed as genus, species and strain — appearing on labels as Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG or Bifidobacterium infantis 35624, for instance.
The right strain can help with regularity and overall immunity, fighting inflammatory bowel diseases and yeast infections, says Murofushi, who has studied the use of probiotics in critically ill patients and the effect on gastrointestinal function.
While he’d like to see patients eating more foods containing probiotics, Murofushi also is a proponent of taking a probiotic supplement, as long as it contains at least 1 billion units of the live active cells necessary to promote good overall digestive health. He likes Align. Culturelle and Florastor are other brands that have shown similar results in human clinical trials.
What are they? The World Health Organization defines probiotics as live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.
What are their benefits? The beneficial bacteria live in the intestines and help the body break down and absorb nutrients. Probiotics, which appear on labels as three words (genus, species, and strain) can assist with digestive health and immunity.
What products are they found in? Probiotics are available as dietary supplements or added to chocolate, cereal, yogurt, cultured milk products and fruit drinks. They also are popping up in such products as skin creams, kitchen cleaners, dental lozenges, and soil amenders.
Common strains? Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Bifidobacterium infantis 35624, Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14.
This article was written by Jessica Yadegaran and published in the Contra Costa Times on August 25, 2012.