The idea of a certain food or drink having its own unique health benefit has been used for centuries by advertisers, and is still a popular selling point today. Accordingly, some yogurt manufacturers promote their brand by emphasizing its healthy effect on digestion, with their biggest claim to fame being an abundance of live cultures in the yogurt. Wait, what? Parts of yogurt are alive?
“Live cultures are microorganisms (bacteria or yeast) that have been shown to be beneficial for our bodies,” explains Shelly Edens, a dietitian at St. Joseph’s/Candler. “This might sound strange since we generally think of bacteria as harmful, but our intestines naturally contain hundreds of strains of ‘good’ bacteria.”
“These friendly bacteria are crucial in the digestion and absorption of nutrients as well as protection against ‘bad’ bacteria that can cause disease,” Edens says.
Yogurt is made by adding live cultures to warm milk. This “good” bacteria is also known as probiotics.
“Probiotics are much like the natural bacteria found in our bodies,” Edens says. “Beneficial effects depend on the type of probiotic and its dose. The most commonly used probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.”
Edens says that cutting through the advertising hype requires reading the labels and perhaps even checking out a brand’s website.
“Specific information should be on the label, including the specific bacteria strain, the number of colony forming units, the expiration date, suggested serving size, and proper storage,” Edens says. Colony forming units, or CFU’s, are a measure of the amount of live cultures in the food.
“The general recommendation for getting the benefits of probiotics is between 1 and 15 CFU’s per day,” says Edens. “This should be stated on the label. If not, the company contact should be provided so that a consumer can find this information.”
Yogurt brands can make a claim such as “promotes a healthy digestive system” if the claim is supported by research. But Edens cautions that those studies are still ongoing. Of course, any serious or chronic digestive problems should be discussed with a physician.
But what if you don’t like yogurt?
“Probiotics can be found in dietary supplements,” Edens says. “Other foods sources are fermented and unfermented milk as well as some juices and soy beverages. The ‘good’ bacteria may already be in the food product or supplement, or it could have been added.”