Probiotics: The Good Bacteria

"Probiotic" -- seems like that word pops up more and more in the dairy aisle these days. Many foods are sporting probiotic labels and promising digestive bliss, but does this bacteria deserve all the hype? Here are the basics.

What Are Probiotics?

These are live microorganisms that help keep your digestive system in working order. Your digestive tract is teeming with bacteria -- the good guys help breakdown food, while the bad guys can cause illness. Since only a certain amount of bacteria occupies your digestive tract at one time, eating probiotics helps outnumber unhealthy bacteria. Keeping a balance of good regulates digestion and may also benefit the immune system.

Sources of Probiotics

Probiotics are in yogurt, some cheeses and fermented dairy products such as kefir, a cultured milk beverage that tastes similar to yogurt, only thinner.

When probiotic browsing, check labels for the two most common ones: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. On an ingredient list, these are usually abbreviated as "L." or "B." followed by the specific species name (examples: L. acidophilus, L. casei, B. bifidum and B. Longum). Don't worry about looking for special packaging or paying a premium; most yogurt products contain these types of good bacteria. Probiotics are also in non-dairy foods -- soy products such as miso and tempeh. Some snack foods -- granola bars, for example -- have them added.

Supplements are also available in capsule and powder forms. Folks often take probiotic pills to help alleviate an upset stomach while traveling. And if you're on antibiotics, you may want to take in some extra probiotics (from food or supplements); antibiotic medications zap all the bacteria in your body -- healthy and unhealthy. But remember, before taking any supplements while on medication (or anytime really), check with your doctor.

Ways to Enjoy Them

If you're worried about it affecting your diet, no need. Foods with probiotics tend to be whole foods that are loaded with nutrients. Nonfat or low-fat yogurt is an easy snack; you can also add it to salad dressings or beverages. Try a mango lassi to cool off a spicy meal or add yogurt to a flavorful meat marinade. Kefir gives smoothies creaminess and tang.

For more on the science and specifics of probiotics, check out the National Institutes of Health.

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