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Answers to Your Questions about Probiotics

5 things you should know about probiotic products.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

The business of beneficial bacteria seems to be booming, with the word "probiotics" showing up on labels of everything from supplements to yogurt to granola bars.

Probiotics are "friendly bacteria" that are similar to organisms that occur naturally in the digestive tract. Certain strains or types of probiotics have been linked to all sorts of health benefits, from helping with irritable bowel syndrome and traveler’s diarrhea to boosting the immune system. They're sometimes used with antibiotics to combat the diarrhea that may result from taking antibiotics.

As the supermarket invasion of probiotic products kicks into high gear, you may have some questions about how to buy and use them. Here are some answers to five common questions about probiotics and products that contain them.

1. Does the FDA Regulate the Term "Probiotics"?

In 2001, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations – not the FDA -- defined "probiotics" as "live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host."

So far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved no specific health claims for probiotics. Further, the amounts of probiotics that studies have found to be beneficial vary from strain to strain and condition to condition.

In 2007, the FDA enacted regulations requiring dietary supplements to be produced in a quality manner, to be free of contaminants or impurities, and to be accurately labeled. Many probiotic researchers are hoping these regulations will improve the quality of probiotic supplements in the United States

2. Which Strains of Probiotics Should I Look For?

Studies have shown different strains of probiotics to provide different benefits. If you're looking for dietary support for the immune system, probiotic microbiology consultant Mary Ellen Sanders, MS, PhD, suggests looking out for:

  • Bifidobacterium lactis HN019. This strain helps modulate some aspects of the immune system in older people (it's sold as an ingredient for dairy and supplement products).
  • Lactobacillus reuteri ATCC55730 (available in BioGaia Gut Health products).
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) (in Danimals drinkable yogurt and Culturelle capsules).
  • Lactobacillus casei DN-114 001 (in DanActive products).
  • Bifidobacterium lactis Bb-12 (available in Yo-Plus yogurt, LiveActive cheese). Use this uncooked for best results. 

And if you want to provide dietary support for diarrhea associated with antibiotic use, Sanders suggests looking for:

  • S. cerevisiae (S. boulardii) (found in Florastor powder and Lalflor capsules.
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) (in Danimals drinkable yogurt and Culturelle capsules).
  • Lactobacillus casei DN-114 001 (in DanActive products).
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus CL1285 plus Lactobicillus casei Lbc80r (available as BioK + CL1285 fermented milk, BioK + CL1285 soy milk, and capsules).

3. What Should I Look for on the Label of a Food Containing Probiotics?

The first thing you want to look for is the full probiotic name, which includes the genus, species, and then the strain. Many products containing probiotics list only the genus and species on the package, such as "bifidobacterium lactis" in Kraft’s LiveActive Cheddar Cheese Sticks.

You might want to check out the web site of the company that sells the product. It may tell you more about:

  • The strain used in the product.
  • How much of the probiotic each serving of the product contains.
  • The research that suggested a health benefit from the probiotic in question, and the amount of probiotic that was used in the research.

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