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The Best Ways to Use Probiotics

Picking Probiotics: Labels Are Important

The best place to begin evaluating a probiotic food or supplement is its label. It should include:

  • the specific genus and species of the probiotic organism or organisms it contains (Lactobacillus rhamnosus, for example)
  • the number of organisms contained in a single dose and how often you should take it (effective doses range widely, from as few as 50 million live cells for some organisms to as many as 1 trillion cells per dose for others)
  • recommended uses, based on scientific studies
  • storage information, when relevant (some forms need to be refrigerated, others have been processed to remain viable at room temperature)
  • contact information for the company

By definition, probiotics are living organisms. To make sure that the organisms in a product are still useful, look for probiotic products that are viable “through end of shelf life” rather than “at time of manufacture.”

The labels on many yogurts and some probiotic foods and supplements indicate that they contain “live active culture.” This means that the product contains living microbes. But keep in mind: Just because a product contains live active culture is no guarantee that it has health benefits.

Choose a Reliable Brand

As important as it is to read probiotic product labels, not all products live up to theirs. This is partly because probiotics are treated as supplements or foods rather than prescription medicines, so the products on store shelves are not required to meet the standards of medications.

As evidence for the health benefits of probiotics gathers, the FDA is reviewing how it regulates these products. Tighter regulation could help make it easier for people to choose the right brand. For now, experts recommend choosing reliable brands with claims and recommended dosages based on scientific studies.

Distinguishing Between Food and Medicine

Some food-based probiotic products are intended to be taken for a specified period of time, not on a regular basis. But foods made with live cultures, such as yogurt and kefir, have been around for thousands of years. Enjoyed as part of a regular diet, they offer plenty of other nutritional benefits. But remember: It may be even more important to eat high-fiber foods, which help maintain robust colonies of friendly bacteria in the intestines.

Reviewed on January 14, 2013

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