Improving and maintaining our health through our food choices has always been a topic of interest for many people, and at no point in recent history has this interest come more into focus than the last year of pandemic living. More people have been tuned into the healthfulness of foods they’re buying compared with pre-pandemic times, and many are actively seeking out nutrients for their immune and digestive health benefits.
Probiotics are one component of foods and beverages that have been associated with both these aspects of health. They’ve become a well-recognized ingredient in foods like yogurt as well as in dietary supplements, stemming from ongoing research on their health effects and widespread interest in them from food- and nutrition-focused circles. And it seems that many people have picked up on the attention that probiotics have received in recent years: IFIC’s 2020 Food and Health Survey found that nearly two in three people believe that probiotics are healthy, and nearly one in three (31%) are trying to consume them. With their sustained popularity, probiotics are being added to any number of foods and beverages, popping up in unexpected, sometimes surprising places. In this article, we’ll walk through a bit of background on probiotics, discuss how and why they’re found in foods outside of the yogurt aisle, and review what you need to know if you’re considering including them in your diet.
What are probiotics?
The World Health Organization and the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics have endorsed probiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” We commonly think of probiotics as bacteria, but certain types of yeasts also fit the bill. The health effects of probiotics can be specific to the species that is present and sometimes even to the level of the bacterial strain, which is the specific genetic subtype within a species of bacteria.
The overall premise is that consuming probiotics will enhance or restore balance to our gut microbiome, which are the microbes that inhabit our gastrointestinal tract (read through our Gut Check series for more info on food and gut health). Probiotic bacteria can play a critical role in the fermentation process of dairy products and other fermented foods. They’re also added to certain foods and beverages in hopes of conferring a functional health benefit upon their consumption.
Where can I find probiotics?
Fermented dairy products, like yogurt and kefir, are common places for probiotics to pop up. They’re also commonly consumed as dietary supplements. In addition, probiotics are increasingly added to non-traditional foods like chocolate, ice cream, juices, sauces, spreads and nutrition bars. These beneficial components can be included in foods that don’t typically contain them, or they can be added in amounts beyond what is normally present.
How can I be sure I’m choosing a food or beverage with probiotics?
You can check to see if a food or beverage you’re looking at contains probiotics in a few different ways. Specific strains of bacteria will be listed in the ingredients list, which is often found on the back or side of the product’s packaging near its nutrition information. Probiotic-containing products will also often mention them on the front of their packaging, sometimes listing specific health benefits associated with the particular strain that’s used. It can be useful to look for the number of colony forming units, or CFUs, that are present at the end of a product’s shelf life. One billion or more CFUs per serving is common, although some products may have much higher counts. Note that higher CFU counts don’t necessarily improve a product’s probiotic health effects.
Will I experience any health benefits from consuming food products with probiotics?
We covered this question in great detail in a previous article, but the short answer is: It’s complicated. At baseline, whether these non-traditional foods truly have probiotic benefits depends on the same requirement that any probiotic food or beverage needs to meet: Their specific species and strains have been proven to have health benefits at the levels they contain when they’re consumed.
But here’s where things get more complicated: In order for something to be considered “probiotic,” it needs to have a proven health benefit in some people, under certain conditions. That doesn’t mean that everyone will experience those health benefits in the amounts that are found in a given food or beverage. Often, studies have shown that the highest degree of benefits are in people experiencing specific gastrointestinal health conditions, while less is known about their benefits for an overall healthy person. At this point, expert bodies of health professionals have not made recommendations for or against probiotic use by healthy people.
Until we know more, there are a few important points to consider. At this point, it’s unclear if there are any consistent, noticeable benefits to consuming probiotics in generally healthy people. That said, probiotic-containing foods can be rich in many other nutrients that our bodies need for optimal health, including protein, calcium and other vitamins and minerals. As with any eating and drinking decision, it’s important to consider what the nutritional content is in the context of the total diet. A probiotic chocolate bar may be a great fit for an added-value indulgence, but its health halo can’t erase the need for nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. Focusing on the basics of healthful eating helps keep our eye on the ball while we continue to learn more about these popular food components.