Dannon Yogurt has struck a $100-million bonanza in their probiotic digestive aid, Activia. "Probiotic" means "pro-life," and the bacteria in Dannon Activia are purported not only to help us digest our food, but to confer us with superimmunity.
Dannon, Stonyfield Farms, Yoplait, Attune, Kashi Vive, and Kraft LiveActive aren't just making this up. There are credible scientific studies to support the proposition that eating beneficial bacteria may reduce childhood eczema, irritable bowel syndrome in adults, diarrhea, and urinary tract infections.
But do probiotic yogurts, cheeses, cereals, and energy bars deliver the good bacteria in a form the body can use?
Unfortunately, the answer is usually "no," at least not very much.
The first sign that a carton of yogurt isn't going to provide you with probiotic bacteria is the expiration date. A long expiration date (say, 3 months from the date of purchase) is a dead giveaway that the yogurt has been heat-treated to extend its shelf life--killing the very cultures that you buy it for!
It doesn't make any difference to your health that the manufacturer started out with a "live culture" if they kill it when they put it in the package.
And even if your product contains actualy "live cultures," the acid in your stomach typically destroys most of the helpful bacteria that survive processing and packaging.
What you really need for digestive health is probiotics in a form that can survive digestion in your stomach to arrive in the intestine where they can do you good. And to survive digestion, that is, for more than about 1 per cent of the bacteria in the product to survive digestion, you need your useful bacteria in the form of an enteric-coated capsule. Enteric coating enables the beneficial bacteria to pass to the intestine without being dissoved with your food.
So what else do you need in a really useful probiotic supplement besides an enteric coating?
If the product does not have at least one billion live organisms per dose, it can't do you any good.
And if it has more grams of sugar than a candy bar, it's probably not going to help you, either.
You need a product with as many of the different kinds of useful bacteria as you can get, not just one strain:
Lactobacillus lactis, and
And with encapsulated probiotic supplements, you still need to look at the expiration date, but because the bacteria are dormant while they're in the capsule, it can be a little longer than for yogurt, cheese, and functional foods. Supplements retain their potency for up to a year. If it's more than a year old, throw it out.
If Activia or a similar product seems to have done you some good, it's not all in your head. Some of the bacteria in the heavily advertised probiotic products actually do survive processing, packaging, and digestion in your stomach. But you'll get much better results with no calories or sugar from a supplement, not a food.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q. Do probiotics expire?
A. Absolutely! If you are getting your active bacteria from a yogurt or kefir product, generally speaking, the fresher the better, since they provide only very small amounts of the bacteria you need, anyway. The product may not be harmful after its expiration date, since the lactic acid produced as it sits in your refrigerator keeps toxic bacteria in check. But a yogurt not likely to do you much good as a probiotic after its expiration date. And if the product has a shelf-life of 3 months, it's been heat-treated, so it didn't have any probiotic content in the first place!
Encapsulated probiotics, aside from being the only alternative for people who choose vegan diets (and if you are a dedicated vegan, you might want to be sure you get a vegan capsule, too, such as Jarro-Dophilus), last much longer than yogurts. These, too, however, eventually expire, and they provide more active bacteria if the product has been stored in the dark and at temperatures below 20-25 degrees C (68-77 degrees F).
Q. What's Activia's shelf life?
A. Go by the date on the label. All the probiotic bacteria don't just die on the label expiration date, but, as noted above, the fresher the better. That doesn't mean you definitely should not use the product after the expiration date. Activia that has not "gone bad" still provides pre-biotics, the food helpful bacteria need to thrive, even after it no longer provides pro-biotics, the bacteria that support the immune system.
Q. Do Activia and similar products have an effect on eczema?
A. In infants, yes, although the way they work is counter-intuitive. A probiotic can actually cause inflammation when it is given to an infant or toddler, but there's something about the way this particular kind of irritation "trains" the immune system that children given probiotics in infancy are less likely to have allergies or eczema by age two. Products that provide either Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG or Bifidobacterium lactis Bb-12 are likely to be beneficial.
Scientists have also looked into what happens when a nursing mother takes a probiotic but the baby does not. At least when the friendly bacterium is Lactobacillus reuteri, if the mother takes it, the child is less likely to have eczema and allergies by age 2. And there is evidence that women who consume Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG or Bifidobacterium lactis Bb-12 during pregnancy have children who are less likely to develop allergies.
Q. So what probiotics will prevent eczema in older children and adults?
A. By age ten, the research suggests, probiotics won't change the immune system to make it "less allergic," but regular consumption of probiotics may relieve symptoms.
Q. Will Activia help me lose weight?
A. Well, maybe, although encapsulated probiotics may work faster. If you increase bacterial activity in the colon, you get larger stools that are easier to pass, and you may lose 2-5 pounds (1-2.5 kilos) just by relieving constipation.
Q. Is there any risk of using yogurt past its expiration date?
A. There's very little risk of your getting food poisoning from eating yogurt that's passed its expiration date, because the Lactobacillus in the product competes against any contaminating bacteria that might cause stomach upset or worse. But why take a risk of getting sick over a product that costs, usually, less than a dollar or two?
Q. Is Dannon the only company that produces Bifidus regularis?
Q. "Bifidus regularis" is the trademarked name for a strain of the bacterium Bifidobacterium animalis. Dannon's trademarks for this particular strain of the bacterium include, according to a Romanian contributor to Wikipedia, Bifidus Digestivum (UK), Bifidus Regularis (US and Mexico), Bifidobacterium Lactis or B.L. Regularis (Canada), Dan Regularis (Brazil) and Bifidus Actiregularis (Argentina, Austria, Chile, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Romania and Russia). The species of bacteria is produced by a Danish company that also trademarks strains of the species in countries where Dannon does not sell its yogurt. So the answer to the question is yes, but bacteria of the same species are available in other yogurts.
Q. Could you simplify that a bit?
A. The difference between Bifidus regularis and other bacteria of the same species is like the difference between Siamese cats and Domestic shorthair cats. They're both cats, they purr, they catch mice, but you can easily tell the difference. I hope this helps.
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