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.

    Recipes to try:

Next Up

Fresh Mozzarella: The Good Stuff

Is fresh mozzarella worth the splurge? Consider that it's nutritionally comparable to low-fat mozzarella, but has a much better flavor. Try it in Robin Miller's grilled fruit salad.

Protein-Enhanced Foods: The Good, Bad and Ugly

It seems like everywhere I turn, new and “improved” high protein versions of seemingly healthy foods are being advertised. Are these really a good-for-you choice?

Ina’s Favorite Flavor of All Time: The Good Vanilla

And why you really don’t want to know what the imitation stuff is made of.

Food Porn: The Good, the Bad and the All Too Pretty

Those gorgeous photos of perfectly presented dishes we can’t get enough of may prompt us to eat more, researchers say. But don’t worry; there’s good news, too.