The truth about probiotic

Is it just marketing hype or do probiotics really boost your digestion and promote well-being?

OddNaari OddNaari Jul 27, 2010

Yoghurt as a natural source of probiotics is passe now and a plethora of probiotic drinks, yoghurts, pills and ice- creams have flooded the supermarket shelves.

The new Indian reaches for a bottle of Yakult almost daily. In fact so much is being made of the benefits of probiotic drinks that many are hooked. Advertising for these products is at an all time high, and the claims made by companies about their health benefits are escalating simultaneously.

The healthy bacteria in probiotics, claim some, can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, prevent colds and cavities and reduce the risk of cancer. A recent study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition even says that probiotics can play an active role in helping to reduce fat and aid weight loss.

But do these fancy health claims hold any truth or are they just a way of promoting the probiotic industry? Though probiotics are naturally present in certain foods such as yoghurt and fermented and unfermented milk, the sources are limited, which is why there has been a boom in the number of probiotically fortified products in recent years.

However, unlike America, India still doesn't have a wide array of probiotic- laced products (Yakult, for instance, has just launched one of its 20 international products in India). But according to data available, branded yoghurt and milk drinks are growing at 33 percent and 14 percent respectively in India.

Probiotic brands available in India such as Nestle, Mother Dairy, Amul and Yakult claim that their products restore the balance of intestinal bacteria, which is disrupted by an unhealthy, low- fibre diet or other factors such as stress, pollution and drugs, leading to abdominal problems.

In such circumstances, probiotics replace the bad bacteria with good bacteria.

"Probiotics are live micro-organisms which help in repairing the lining of the intestine. We still don't know how much of this is true but as they are available in natural form such as curd so we can consume them without much thought," says Dr Ashok Chordiya, director, Fortis Hospital, Noida.

Friendly bacteria in your gut do keep your digestive system healthy. They help in the absorption of vitamins, minerals and nutrients which cannot be digested on their own. They also break down toxins and most importantly limit the growth of bad bacteria responsible for intestinal problems such as food poisoning and stomach flu. By raising the resistance to harmful germs, these healthy bacteria balance the bugs in the intestine. But we still don't know much about this mutually beneficial relationship and answers are still being sought for which bacterial strain is beneficial for a certain health condition or the amount required. "Of the thousands of different beneficial bacteria, only a handful is proven to be effective such as the Lactobacilli or Bifidobacter families," says Dr Rajesh Tandon, consultant gastroenterologist, Pushpawati Singhania Research Institute.

And just the way different antibiotics are prescribed for diarrhoea or strep throat, different probiotic strains give different health benefits. But, most of the labels on probiotic products just mention the family name for the active ingredient and not which member of the family is in the product. "What we still need to know is the specific illnesses in which these healthy microbes can be effective. Which is why some pharma companies have probotic products which are a concoction of strains for chronic intestinal diseases such as ulcerative colitis," says Dr Tandon.

A variety of other claims are also misleading but as the layperson lacks the information required to understand these, the sales of probiotics keep upping. For instance, some leading international probiotic brands claim that their products contain freeze-dried bacteria which come alive after entering the intestines. It's important to note that scientists at the European Food Safety Agency which looked at 180 health claims for the probiotic supplements last year rejected 10 claims and said the rest 170 did not provide enough evidence of their effects.

Unsubstantiated are the claims that probiotics can prevent or treat vaginal yeast infections, urinary tract infections, bladder cancer, recurrence of eczema in children, colds and flu. "We can't prescribe probiotics randomly as most of the claims remain unsubstantiated. What we know is that it is effective for diarrhoea, especially following treatment with certain antibiotics, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome," says Dr Tandon.

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