URBANA, Ill. – Vitamins are a regular part of many people’s health routine, but should there also be a daily dose of bacteria?

More than 60% of the average American diet consists of highly processed foods. The sterile environments in which foods are produced protect them from harmful bacteria, but also from good bacteria.

That’s where probiotics come in. Probiotics are living microbes that support the body's immune system, help digest foods, fight disease, and with general health.

Probiotics have been proven to help keep bad bacteria from getting out of control, help support gut health, and break down and absorb phytochemicals. Probiotic use can also ease symptoms of common conditions such as constipation, yeast infections, and lactose intolerance.

But not all probiotics are the same.

“The most important part of understanding probiotics is remembering that a lot of bacteria don’t provide any health benefits for humans,” says Breanna Metras, doctoral student in University of Illinois Division of Nutritional Sciences. “We need to do research, so we’re only ingesting products that benefit us.”

Metras recently led a program on the pros and cons of probiotics. Before a probiotic can be approved for public use, it has to meet certain criteria, including: 

  • Can it survive passing through the digestive system?
  • How does it interact with other nutrients?
  • Can it compete with existing microbes?

Finding a probiotic that works is arguably the trickiest part of adding them as a supplement. Metras says consumers should understand that probiotic labeling can often be misleading.

Labels should list both the product’s genus, strain, and species. For example, a bottle of probiotics on the store shelf labeled “Lactobacillus,” only states the genus, instead of “Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM” which includes the strain and the species.

“This is an immediate red flag for me,” says Metras. “It means there’s a good chance the manufacturer doesn’t really know what’s in their product.”

Manufacturers also make false claims. Probiotics that claim to help with weight loss, naturally regulate the digestive system, or hold “1 trillion live active cultures” are fair game for suspicion.

“A lot of companies create products that contain a mixture of different strains, and consumers buy into the claim that the more strains of bacteria a probiotic has, the better it is for them,” says Metras. “It just comes down to having one or two strains that really work.”

Not all probiotics behave the same, and each has its own individual benefits. One easy way to start introducing probiotics is adding probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt or kefir, into your diet.

Metra’s full presentation, The Pros and Cons of Probiotics, is available at go.illinois.edu/PCprobiotics.

SOURCE: Breanna Metras, PhD candidate, University of Illinois Division of Nutritional Sciences
WRITER: Alli Kimmons, Writer, University of Illinois Extension

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