There’s Still a Lot of Guesswork
Keep in mind that doctors are still learning about the best practices for probiotic use. “Gastroenterologists and especially pediatric gastroenterologists have really begun to embrace the use of probiotics,” Guandalini tells WebMD. “But there is still a lot that we don’t know.”
Doctors have only a small handful of studies to go on for information about the best dosage to prescribe, for example. And very few studies have been done comparing one probiotic against another. As research progresses, doctors are likely to know more about when and how to prescribe 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.