Hundreds of years ago, probiotics were served at many meals in the guise of fermented cabbage dishes, sour milk products or pickled vegetables. Today we have to look a bit harder because many food preservation methods kill helpful bacteria. Food manufacturers have discovered their value however and each week more probiotic products are being introduced. Yogurt of course is a popular source. Frozen yogurt, snack bars, granola and fruit juices are categories of foods which are starting to add probiotic lines. And don’t forget the original, more natural sources such as sauerkraut, pickles and aged cheeses which may or may not have probiotics left in them after processing, transport and storage.
An increasing number of food products have been formulated or labeled as probiotic; these foods include yogurt to cheese to nutrition bars to infant formula. Five hundred new probiotic food and beverages have been introduced in the last decade across the globe. Europe is currently the largest probiotics market due to high awareness of the benefits of probiotic yogurts and fermented milk.
Many of the new labels are confusing. How many billions are enough to have a good effect, for example? And which bacteria are best? Is a prebiotic or fiber needed? The World health Organization says that “probiotics…should not only be capable of surviving passage through the digestive tract, by exhibiting bile and acid tolerance, but also should have the capability to proliferate in the gut.” Sorting out the truth from the marketing hype will not be easy. There are 500 to 1000 and possibly many more strains of helpful bacteria in us. Probably fewer than a hundred have names while the very few such as those in yogurt are grabbing the spotlight. All of this means that consumers must be patient—and a bit skeptical—and the facts will eventually emerge. Meanwhile, the best advice is to include some probiotic-rich foods in your diet everyday.
Yogurt isn’t the only way to get probiotics, though it is the most popular. In the United States, yogurt is enjoyed sweet while in Middle East and India, plain yogurt is used to cool down curries and spicy stews. Lactobacillus acidophilus or Lactobacillus bulgaricus is the required fermenting bacteria in the United States. The milk used to make yogurt can come from any animal, goat, sheep, cow. The milk is pasteurized and then the bacteria cultures are added. The bacteria digest the lactose or milk sugar and other carbohydrates which produces lactic acid. The lactic acid gives yogurt its tart taste and thick texture while making an inhospitable place for bad bacteria to thrive.
The National Yogurt Association (NYA) has developed a “Live & Active Cultures” seal which requires yogurt to contain at least 100 million cultures per gram or 20 billion per 8 ounce serving. But don’t think the NYA has made all our lives easier by devising a simple seal. In fact the words “live” and “active” throw questions into the discussion immediately. Just because they are live doesn’t mean they are active. Live and active at the time they left the factory doesn’t insure there are still wiggling when we pull them from a refrigerator at Costco. The seal is voluntary and some yogurts don’t use the seal though they may qualify. The important thing to know is if the milk was pasteurized before or after the fermentation process. If the bacteria were added before pasteurization, the heat effectively kills all the probiotics. Further muddling the probiotic landscape is that strains of bacteria are sometimes called different things in different countries. There is no agency which regulates the naming of bacteria.
When choosing yogurt, here are a few things to consider:
• Look for the NYA seal.
• Try to get used to plain yogurt to which you can add fresh fruit or granola. Read the labels. Sweetened yogurt can have as much sugar as a soft drink.
• Decide the fat level you are comfortable with. Aim for less than regular which is made with whole milk (3.5% fat).
• Look for added fiber. These are prebiotics which feed the probiotic bacteria. According to The Probiotics Revolution by Gary B. Huffnagle, these come in at least four varieties:
o Pectin, a type of fiber found in apples.
o Inulin, fiber found in many fruits and vegetables.
o FOS (fructo-oligosaccharide)
o Polydextrose, a fiber made from dextrose and sorbitol
Some products you may already be using are: Activia, DanActive and Danimals by the well-known company Dannon; Yoplait and Yoplait Plus from General Mills, Greek yogurts, with less lactose, fewer carbohydrates and twice the protein of regular yogurts, under the brands Chobani, Oikos and Fage; soy yogurts produced by Turtle Mountain; LiveActive cheeses by Kraft Foods.
Dannon has already gotten in trouble for a label claiming that their Activia and DanActive yogurts has cultures both clinically and scientifically proven to regulate digestion and boost immune sysytems. A class action suit was filed against Dannon. Dannon paid out $45 million but stands by their products and said they settled to avoid the cost and distraction of litigation.
Food Sources of Probiotics
• Frozen yogurt: National Yogurt Association states that frozen yogurt must contain at least 10 million cultures per gram at the time of manufacture.
• Kefir is a fermented beverage made from cow’s, goat or sheep’s milk as well as from plants including soy, rice and coconut. Kefir is made by inoculating these milks with bacteria, including Lactobacillus kefiri and species of Leuconostoc, Lactococcus and others. Kefir grains look a bit like cauliflower. After the milk ferments and thickens, the grains are strained out. Kefir comes in whole or low-fat varieties, plain or flavored, organic or traditional. Many supermarkets, not just Whole Foods are staring to carry kefir products.Kefir is thought to originate in the Caucasus mountains in Russia and Turkey. Kefir was used to treat tuberculosis,cancer and gastrointestinal disorders. It has been said that the Prophet Mohammed gave kefir cultures to his followers who passed them on to the next generation.
• Buttermilk is a common yet underused product produced from making butter. Ranch salad dressing has popularized it.
• Acidophilus milk is the result of inoculating milk with lactobacillus acidophilus.
• Sweet acidophilus milk—cultured but not fermented?
• Lebne is a spreadable cheese made from yogurt which is popular in the Middle East.
• Viili is cultured whole milk popular in Finland; kermavilli is a cultured cream from the same country.
•Lassi, dadhi, maziwa lal, chach are fermented products popular in India.
• Aged cheese contains some, but not all cultures produce probiotics. Fermented cheeses include cheddar, Swiss, parmesan, Gouda and many others. Most cheeses like these start with lactic acid bacteria which form lactic acid which causes the milk to form curds and whey. The curds are allowed to ferment for days, weeks and sometimes years. Chemicals are formed by the bacteria as the cheese sets, giving it distinctive flavor. Metabolic byproducts are also formed adding another healthful dimension in the guise of metabiotics. Pizza cheese or mozzarella, alas, is not fermented so does not have probiotics. But Healthy Pizza—Processed cheese is not really cheese they are cheese foods, so they have no probiotics.
•Juices are becoming vehicles for probiotic delivery. GoodBelly is an organic fruit juice- based containing Lactobacillus plantarum 299v.
•Fermented cabbage is a staple in many cultures: Sauerkraut in Germany, kimchi in Asia, curtido in Central America or choucroute in France. Cabbage only requires salt to get the process of fermentation underway. Several bacteria are working and the most common probiotic is Lactobacillus plantarum. Unfortunately, many commercial products have been pasteurized which will destroy the bacteria. If the bacteria were not killed, the cans or jars would expand and burst. Also the preservative sodium benzoate will kill bacteria. Look on the labels to see if it is included and if probiotics have been added.
•Pickles and olives made with traditional methods such as brine-curing and salt-curing contain significant concentrations of lactobacilli. However, many commercial products are pasteurized and preserved with sodium benzoate to prolong shelf-life, both of which kill helpful bacteria.
Attunemakes several types of snack bars which contain probiotics.
Kashi Vive Cereal
contains encapsulated bacteria which are resistant to acid, high temperatures and stomach acid thereby boasting the ability to be stored and delivered at room temperature.
•Yakult drink contains Lactobacillus casei Shirota which amazingly has been popular in Japan since the 1930’s. It is not easy to find in the United States but distribution is on the rise.
•Baby formula with probiotics has been introduced by Nestle under the brand Good Start Natural Cultures. Studies show that infants in antibiotics or with diarrhea may benefit from this addition. Breast-fed infants get probiotics naturally in breast milk.
•World’s Healthiest Pizza, launched Naked Pizza in 2008, made with prebiotic whole grains and probiotic bacteria bacillus coagulans. Founders Jeff leach and Randy Crochet insist that the pizza retains viable bacteria after baking in over 500 degree ovens. Each two slice serving delivers one billion CFUs and five grams of prebiotics. The flagship oven is in New Orleans with franchises being scooped up in Boston, St. Petersburg. And several others.
•Chewing gum is a natural vehicle for populating the mouth and throat with helpful probiotics. One gum from CulturedCare is fortified with S. salivarius BLIS K12. BLIS is an abbreviation for Bacteriocin-Like Inhibitory Substance. According to the microbiologist John Tagg of the University of Otaga in New Zealand, BLIS K12 specifically controls infection by Streptococcus pyrogenes, the pathogenic bacteria which causes strep throat. It also protects against earache, bad breath, sore throats, thrush and oral candida yeast infection.
•Other natural sources are microbrew beers, cottage cheese, miso, pickled ginger, and tempeh.
A prebiotic is an indigestible carbohydrate that nourishes or helps to stimulate the growth of probiotics. Perhaps the best-known example of a prebiotic is the fiber inulin. Inulin is a soluble fiber with strong bonds to carry it through to the large intestine almost completely intact. Inulin can be found in bananas, garlic, and onion, as well as asparagus, artichoke, wheat and chicory root.