Disproving 7 probiotic myths

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Disproving 7 probiotic myths

It wasn’t that long ago when most people had never even heard of a probiotic let alone define what a probiotic is.  Today, things have changed – probiotics are all the rage and we are told if we want a happy, healthy tummy, we need to be eating foods containing these substances. 

Yet, probiotics can be a confusing concept for consumers to grasp.  From probiotic supplements to fermented foods like yogurt or sauerkraut, probiotics are widely available in stores making decisions that much harder to make.  There are many misconceptions on the use of probiotics, their benefits and their role in promoting health and treating disease.

But what do you really know about probiotics and the beneficial live bacteria and yeast they are composed of?  To help clear up any confusion, here are common myths associated with these microorganisms, the good guys for your gut:

Myth 1 – All probiotics do the same thing

Not so.  Every single probiotic supplement available on the market can be different.  Some probiotics have a single strain of organisms, while others contain multiple strains.  These different strains of the same species may also be different having varying effects on health.  Another variation is that microbe concentrations can differ widely among products.  Depending on the organism, will determine what effect they have on the body.  The microbes that have consistently shown to convey benefits in conditions of interest are the bacteria Lactobacillus GG and the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii.

Myth 2 – Probiotics can replace medications

Some people would rather go a more natural route in treating medical conditions, but probiotics have typically been studied in conjunction with medications and not as a substitute for them.  It is never a wise idea to stop a medication without consulting your physician first by switching to a probiotic.  Probiotics can be used as additions to an existing treatment source or they may be used preventatively to possibly avoid having the need for a medication down the road.

Myth 3 – Food and supplement labels provide accurate microbe counts

Not always.  Many food labels typically never mention how many bacteria are present in the food – instead they simply say has “live bacteria” or “live cultures.” Sometimes reading the ingredient list may provide more information about the organisms found in the food such as their genus and species name.  You may be able to find a microbe count on high-quality supplements from reputable manufacturers in addition to listing the organism’s genus, species, and strain.  Some supplements may provide a live microbe count “at the time of manufacture” which does not guarantee this same amount will be available when you buy or take the product.

Myth 4 – Most yogurts are a good source of probiotics

Not all yogurts contain probiotics.  Search on the container looking for the words “live and active cultures.”  Not all yogurts list the probiotic strain or the amount of live cultures in their packaging.  When choosing a probiotic yogurt make sure they contain at least one or a combination of the following strains – Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus thermophiles, and Streptococcus thermophiles. 

Myth 5 – Taking probiotics may help prevent colds

The evidence is really not there yet.  Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how probiotics might work to support the immune system and which conditions probiotics are most effective for.  We always hear how probiotics help the immune system so many of us do turn to considering using probiotics to help prevent sickness.  Until more research is done, the verdict is still out as to how helpful probiotics may be in keeping colds away.

Myth 6 – All fermented foods contain probiotics

Yogurt, some cheeses, sauerkraut, kefir (a yogurt beverage), kombucha (fermented tea), and even chocolate (fermented cocoa beans) are just a few examples of fermented foods.  But, you can’t always assume they contain live microbes or provide a probiotic health benefit – especially at the end of their shelf life.  And if the food is pasteurized (heated to kill bad bacteria) after fermentation, such as canned sauerkraut, probiotics are killed.  A “Live and active cultures” seal on yogurt means it contains live L. bulgaricus and S. thermophiles, which are needed to make the yogurt.  These two ingredients help break down lactose in milk.  But if you’re looking other health benefits, check the ingredients of the yogurt to see if it contains specific probiotic strains shown to have that benefit. 

Myth 7 – Probiotics have been approved to treat or prevent certain types of illnesses

This is part of the problem with probiotics – none of them have been approved to prevent or treat specific illnesses.  However, manufacturers of foods containing probiotics are allowed to make general health claims.  For example, food makers can say that their product “improves digestive health,” a vague phrase that’s not clearly defined.  Also there are many unanswered questions about probiotics with research still emerging.  Some questions include exactly how much of a probiotic product people need to consume to see beneficial health effects, how exactly probiotics work in the body, and which microbes and dosages work best for specific medical conditions.