Most Americans feel that all bacteria are unhealthy. However, eating ‘good bacteria’ (non-pathogenic microorganisms), known as probiotics, can exert a positive influence on a person’s health. Dairy products fermented by probiotics (usually by the bacteria Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium) have been consumed for centuries. Although relatively new in the U.S. marketplace, probiotics have been commercially available in Japan and European countries for decades.
Russian scientist and Nobel Prize winner Professor Elie Metchnikoff hypothesized that certain strains of bacteria could increase longevity and enhance health. Purportedly, probiotics can enhance aspects of the immune system, ease or enhance digestion of certain foods and decrease growth of pathogens such as Clostridia. As such, probiotics have been included in the category of “functional foods”. In support of this hypothesis, clinical trials have begun to show that certain probiotics can reduce the duration of diarrhea during intestinal infections and can provide relief for lactose intolerant persons.
Currently, there are over a dozen new foods and supplements containing a probiotic ingredient and about 20 different strains of beneficial bacteria on the market.
The majority of yogurts on the market contain probiotics. Some yogurts have package labels stating that the products may contain “live and active cultures”(e.g. L. acidophilus – a common probiotic); up to about 100 million bacteria/gram. Additionally, certain “health drinks” may contain up to ten times that amount.
Many probiotic strains of bacteria have achieved “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) according to U.S. regulations. Regulations in Europe stipulate that the safety of a probiotic is the responsibility of the producer. Unfortunately, the routine use of probiotics is often confounded by lack of optimum strain selection, dose, vehicle for its delivery, and safety parameters used for its evaluation. Continued interest and research in the area of probiotics will lead to a better knowledge of their safety, efficacy and use.