Probiotics: The next big thing, or just another fad? - The Monitor: Life

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Probiotics: The next big thing, or just another fad?

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Posted: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 12:00 am

Marketers of probiotics and probiotic-infused foods claim it's the new wonder food, but they may not be telling you the whole story.

Probiotics are essentially strains of "good" bacteria that occur naturally in the gut.

"The normal human digestive tract contains about 400 types of probiotic bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and promote a healthy digestive system," according to www.webmd.com. "The largest group of probiotic bacteria in the intestine is lactic acid bacteria, of which Lactobacillus acidophilus, found in yogurt, is the best known."

Clinical research has found that probiotics, like those found in "live culture" yogurt may help with certain illnesses and diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

In a 2005 conference American Society for Microbiology, experts presented evidence that probiotics may be helpful in preventing or treating:

 >>Diarrhea (this is the strongest area of evidence, especially for diarrhea from rotavirus)

>> Infections of the urinary tract or female genital tract

>> Irritable bowel syndrome

>> Recurrence of bladder cancer

>> Lengthy intestinal infection

>> Pouchitis (a condition that can follow surgery to remove the colon)

>> Eczema in children

The research presented in the conference corresponded to specific strains of bacteria that were controlled and studied by themselves; the actual strains found in live culture yogurt may be very different.

But most experts agree that "friendly bacteria are vital to proper development of the immune system, to protect against microorganisms that could cause disease, and to the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients," according to NIH NCCAM.

While scientists look at the promise of probiotics, companies are putting more products on the market containing them. But with little government regulation of supplements or oversight of labeling, some companies are making promises that their products don't deliver.

Research by www.ConsumerLabs.com, a company that does clinical trails for human and pet supplement and food products, found in their clinical trial of 25 different brands of supplements that 44 percent of the brands have fewer live cultures than they claim and fewer than research has shown to be effective. (Research says that for probiotics to be effective, people need to consume at least a billion organisms per daily serving.)

The same company researched probiotic pet supplements and found that only one out of three supplements pass the test. One supplement actually contained mold, said Tod Cooperman, president of www.consumerlabs.com.

While Cooperman's study focused on supplements, he said there has been an ongoing debate about whether the bacteria in commercially produced yogurt are still viable at the time of consumption. Temperature, time on the shelf and shipping can kill probiotics, and while the dead bacteria won't harm a person, they won't provide any additional benefit, Cooperman said.

The challenge is that as more and more companies are creating products that boast the benefits of probiotics, many are making claims that have not been scientifically proven.

"I think there's a lot of suggestive marketing that may lead people to believe that probiotics may do more that they can actually do," Cooperman said. "They have high expectations, when (probiotics) may not be proven to do what they're expecting. The downside is probably more in the pocketbook than in terms of being harmful to people."

Looking for a probiotic? A study by www.ConsumerLabs.com found Primadophilus® Optima: the synergistic 14 strain probiotic was the best out of the 25 products tested.

Paige Lauren Deiner covers features and entertainment for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4425. You can reach her at (956) 683-4425.

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