Whether you do your shopping at LuLu, Spinney's or Carrefour, a stroll down the dairy aisle will reveal no shortage of yoghurt products to choose from. Aside from added fruit and flavouring they are crawling with bacteria - the good kind that is. But when it comes to choosing your yoghurt, it's important to realise that not all are created equal. Good bacteria, otherwise known as probiotics, contribute to the health and balance of the stomach when consumed in adequate amounts, replacing other, more harmful varieties. The list of potential benefits associated with probiotics is long. Intake has been linked to everything from the treatment of diarrhoea, prevention of eczema in children, to improving symptoms related to lactose intolerance. The most recent research findings presented last month in Amsterdam found that pregnant women who took them starting in the first trimester were more likely to shed pounds after giving birth.
Given the recent popularity of probiotic yoghurt in the European and North American markets, food manufacturers have been quick to jump on the bacteria bandwagon. A wide variety of products have come to the market infused with living bacteria, from breakfast cereals to fruit juices to energy bars, as well as supplements - pills packed with billions of cells. Not only do these products have added bacteria, they often boast enough health claims to leave your head spinning. The packages themselves will have you thinking they are nothing short of miracle foods, promising to "keep your tummy working like clockwork" and "help strengthen your body's defences".
Food items vary widely not only in the amount of bacteria they contain, but also the type. And just because a certain type has proven to have beneficial side effects, until a manufacturer has tested the product in human trials, there's no way to know if its consumption translates to any actual benefits beyond replenishing the stomach's healthy bacteria. The scientific understanding of healthy bacteria is still in its infancy, therefore there are few regulations on what can be labelled "probiotic". Until labelling laws are enforced, it is "buyer beware". A study conducted by researchers at the University of Sharjah and published in the journal Food and Nutrition Research earlier this year found that despite a wide variety of probiotic products available in the Arabian Gulf, guidelines for labelling and health claims were lacking, leading the authors to call for these issues to be addressed for greater consumer clarity.
Until such time as this happens, there are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing probiotic products. Some strains of bacteria have more clout than others.Do your research and find out which is best for you, and what evidence exists to support the claim. Some products will have one strain, while others will have two or three. The amount of bacteria can be very different from product to product. Standard recommendations on the amount needed for them to have an impact on health are unclear, but most estimates suggest at least one billion active cells per dose. That may sound like a lot, but these fragile bacteria need to survive the packaging process and harsh conditions in your intestinal tract in order to impart their benefits once they reach the stomach. Probiotic products should always list how much bacteria they contain per serving. Always look for the number available at the time of consumption rather than the time of preparation.
Pay close attention to expiry dates. Bacteria are living cells, and the best-before date is a good indication of how fresh the product is - the older the product, the less cells that it is likely to contain. While some probiotic products are shelf stable, most need to be kept in a cool, dry place such as the refrigerator. Finally, keep in mind that probiotics are living cells, therefore extreme conditions, such as heat from cooking, can drastically reduce their numbers.
The bottom line: preliminary research findings suggest probiotics have a lot to offer, much of which is still being discovered. But as with all other foods, they are certainly not a magic bullet, and are best consumed as part of a well-rounded healthy diet.