The Surge of Probiotics

By Chuck Norris

October 17, 2014 7 min read

There are claims made almost daily about the benefits to be found in a glass of wine — from lowering your cholesterol to protecting your heart to fighting cancer to helping you lose weight.

You may soon be able to add to the list probiotics — a term meaning "supporting life," the flip side of antibiotics. It refers to the "good" bacteria found in the gut, the main area in the body where the immune system interacts with what's brought in from the outside world. When consumed, probiotics restore the bacteria that are believed to help keep "bad" bacteria at bay. They are also said to play a role in immunity and helping us digest food and absorb nutrients, and they may even have anti-cancer properties.

Researchers in Spain apparently have isolated a certain strain of bacteria in wine that is similar to ones found in yogurt. The study will be published in the December issue of the journal Food Microbiology. The probiotic properties of the lactic acid bacteria they have isolated from wine are believed to be similar to those of probiotics that come from dairy products such as fermented milk and yogurt. Given the escalating lactose intolerance occurring in the world population, the researchers believe they have hit upon a way of providing similar benefits to those found in fermented dairy products using nondairy probiotics.

Researchers were quick to add that these new findings do not mean that drinking a couple of glasses of wine a day will provide the same health benefits as eating a probiotic-rich food such as yogurt. Wine does not currently provide a sufficient number of probiotics to be significantly beneficial. The process used to stabilize wine, preserving it with sulfites, eliminates many of the beneficial bacteria. The hope is that they will be able to isolate this strain found in wine and develop it as a food additive.

This news from Spain appears to be the kind that would be hardly worthy of any attention at all were it not associated with one of the hottest topics in medicine.

"There's been a tremendous increase in interest in probiotics among practicing physicians and the general public," noted Dr. W. Allan Walker, a professor of nutrition and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. Walker is deep into the topic as an investigator at the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. According to Walker, there are already solid data supporting the use of probiotics to help treat infectious diarrhea in young children, help restore intestinal balance and temper the side effects of antibiotics.

He is specifically exploring the use of probiotics in infants as part of an ongoing working group of experts who first analyzed the scientific data and published recommendations for physicians on probiotic use in 2011. The group plans to release updated guidelines by March.

Researchers are only in the beginning phase of understanding just how differences in the composition of gut bacteria influence human health. However, the public, food manufacturers and pharmaceutical marketers are trumpeting dietary supplements and processed food with probiotics. Annual global sales of probiotic products are expected to rise to $42 billion by 2016. Probiotics are considered one of the fastest-growing products in the food industry.

A study by the independent research group ConsumerLab.com, as detailed in a recent USA Today report, found that though half of Americans take some kind of pill to supplement their diet, the use of many popular supplements is waning. The one category in which supplementation is growing? Probiotics. From 2012 to 2013, use of probiotics rose from 31 percent to 37 percent among regular supplement users.

Yet not all supplements are created equal. ConsumerLab.com found that 30 percent of probiotic products don't contain the volume of viable bacteria claimed on the label. Complicating product claims is the fact that measurements are taken at the manufacturing site. Improper shipping or storage in heat or humidity could reduce the number by as much as half of what the label claims by the time the supplement reaches consumers.

According to Berkeley Wellness, probiotic products may contain a single strain or many strains, and the number of organisms in a daily dose can range from 1 billion to more than 250 billion. Manufacturers commonly boast that their products contain unique probiotics and/or combinations of strains that make them even better for you while charging a premium price for it, but who knows for sure? The true benefit of probiotic products may take years to fully authenticate.

Still, there is little downside to including them in a diet, but in doing so, let us not forget that you can get probiotics in reliable natural food forms.

"I always say food is the best source of nutrients, and foods like Greek yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchee are all natural sources of probiotics," says nutritionist Christopher Mohr. "But supplements will provide above and beyond the doses found in food, and they appear to be safe for healthy individuals."

Which means that if you are immune-compromised, have certain bowel problems or are seriously ill in other ways, you may want to consider avoiding probiotics unless a specialist has OK'd their use. Berkeley Wellness suggests that probiotics should be used cautiously by pregnant women, infants and young children and never should be given to premature infants.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved any specific health claims for probiotics, so beware of products that promise a specific health improvement.

Also, in natural foods such as yogurt, you should look for the phrase "contains active cultures" on the label to confirm that the product includes probiotics.

It is also recommended that you look for supplements that contain more than one bacterial strain, which should be shown on the label. Some research suggests that this increases a product's effectiveness.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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