What’s the deal with probiotics?
They’re putting probiotics in everything now. Have you noticed? Some of my friends are hooked on Attune bars. You find these glorified candy bars in the refrigerated section of the health food store along side the “probiotic truffles” and the kombucha beverages. So what’s the deal with these probiotic foods? Are they really healthy? What are probiotics anyway? Should we take them?
Probiotic literally means “for life.” The term refers to the good bacteria (flora) that we house in our intestinal tract. Yes, it’s true! We all have about 2-3 pounds of living bacteria inside of us. There are about 500 different species of gut flora and if you’re in good health, about 80% of them are considered “good guys.” The other 15 to 20% play no role (at least none that we know of yet). We’re now discovering that the kind of gut flora you have may actually play a role in your body weight and composition. Our gut flora directly impacts our health in that it makes up about 80% of our immune system. We start to create this probiotic army the minute we come out of the womb. Mom’s breast milk plays a huge role. So does sticking everything we first come into contact with into our mouths.
What we eat can also greatly impact our gut flora. If you look back in time, you’ll see that every culture included some kind of fermented food in their traditional diets. Kim-Chi, raw sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt, and pickles are all great examples. These foods are delicious and naturally contain beneficial bacteria strains. Unfortunately, many of these foods have fallen out of favor. But the food industry sure has picked up on the “probiotic” concept, introducing new items to the marketplace!
Now there’s no harm in getting an extra probiotic boost in your foods. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re really getting the benefits that their packaging claims! Let’s take Attune bars for example. The first ingredient listed is evaporated cane juice. That means sugar! Sugar feeds the wrong type of gut bacteria and can suppress immune function. Do the probiotics and the sugars cancel each other out? It’s hard to say.
How about Activia yogurt? Touted as a digestive healer, with 17 grams of sugar per serving from straight sugar and corn syrup, I wouldn’t consider Activia a health food by any means.
When choosing probiotic foods, make sure that you’re not simply eating junk food with a probiotic supplement mixed in. Raw, fermented sauerkraut at Whole Foods or at Farmer’s markets is an excellent choice and can be used like a daily condiment with protein foods. It’s also quite simple to make on your own. Kombucha beverages are another excellent source, but choose the plain ones over the ones with extra fruit juice added in. Plain yogurt, whether it’s from cow, goat, or sheep is a great choice. Just make sure there is no added sugar (or corn syrup) in the ingredients list!
There are times when it can be beneficial to take a straight probiotic supplement. For example, after a round of antibiotics, or if you’re fighting off a cold or flu, supplementing can reset your digestion and boost your immune system. Choose a supplement that’s got several different strains it it, and make sure it’s been sealed and refrigerated for maximum potency. One of my favorite brands is Megaflora by Megafoods which has 14 different strains and 20 billion cells per capsule.
In order for probiotics to prosper and thrive, they need to eat too!! Food for probiotics is called “prebiotics.” The natural fiber found in foods like jerusalem artichokes, chickory root, onion, jicama, dandelion root, burdock root, leeks, asparagus, oats, barley, and apples are a terrific source. These can create some gas though as your system adjusts to the change in gut flora! Take it easy with these foods and introduce them in gradually. Your body will thank you in time.
Yours in health,
Sylvie Nalezny, MA, CNE