An explanation of the real value of probiotic yogurt to digestive health and wellness.
In recent years, the word “probiotic” has become a powerful marketing catch-phrase in the food industry. One that, like others of its ilk (omega-3s, plant sterols, all-natural) has become synonymous with what consumers perceive as being “healthy food”. Probiotic yogurt is the big-daddy of all probiotic-infused foods, selling millions of containers a year to those who believe it’s going to improve digestion, restore healthy gut flora, and reduce bloating. But what’s the real story of this digestive-cure-all dairy dynamo?
What is a probiotic?
A probiotic is a live microorganism beneficial to humans as it helps to restore and improve intestinal microbial balance. Probiotics work by inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria in the gut, and allowing good bacteria to flourish.
They can help alleviate digestive distress, inflammation in the gut, and treat diarrhea, bloating, and infections. After a course of antibiotics, probiotics are particularly helpful in restoring health to the digestive system, as antibiotics can strip the intestines of the helpful bacteria needed to function properly. There are several strains of probiotics, and supplements that are multi-strain (meaning they contain different types of probiotics) and high count (10 billion or more) are best.
Is yogurt naturally a probiotic food?
Yogurt becomes probiotic when the starter cultures used to ferment milk into yogurt are allowed to continue to live in the finished product. Not all yogurt contains probiotics, as it has to be produced to encourage the growth of the bacteria. Traditionally, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus are the cultures used in yogurt making. In recent years, some manufacturers began adding extra cultures to yogurt during processing to enhance its probiotic properties. The cultures most often added are Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus reuteri and Bifidobacterium bifidum.
What’s in that yogurt they tell you is healthy?
Not all yogurts are created equal. Much of the yogurt available on the market today is laden with sugar, artificial preservatives, stabilizers, dyes, fruit flavored syrups, and sugar (some fat free yogurt contains up to 24 grams of sugar!). And sugar is a probiotic killer.
In addition, pasteurization kills not only the bad bacteria in dairy products, but also reduces the quantity and effects of the good bacteria (or probiotics). Through this pasteurization process and the addition of the sugars, the probiotics essentially disappear (if there were any of significance to begin with).
One of the most advertised and touted brands of probiotic yogurts, Danone Activia (for example), claims it has an “exclusive” probiotic culture called BL Regularis. According to the website “BL RegularisTM is a probiotic culture scientifically proven and clinically tested to survive passage through the digestive system, arriving into the large intestine as a live culture that stays active. Each serving of Activia® contains over 1 billion live, active BLTM bacteria.”
What exactly is BL Regularis? Its scientific name is Bifidobacterium animalis, a bacteria found in the large intestines of most mammals, including humans. This bacteria, along with several other strains, aid in digestion. So, what Danone has done, it seems, is trademarked a naturally occuring bacteria. The amount of this bacteria (1 billion) sounds impressive, but in truth, at least 10 billion active bacteria (minimum) are needed daily to create a noticeable difference in the quality of digestion and assimilation. Not to mention, a good probiotic should be enteric coated – meaning that it is encapsulated to prevent its release prior to reaching the small intestine. A probiotic is no good if your stomach acid eats it for breakfast!
Besides the potential ineffectiveness of the probiotics, the nutritional content of Activia is not all that healthy. Their strawberry yogurt, for example, contains: “Skim milk, cream, fructose, concentrated skim milk, strawberries, sugar, milk and whey protein concentrate, corn starch, gelatin, natural flavour, modified corn starch, active bacterial cultures (Bifidobacterium lactis DN-173 010), natural colour, pectin, calcium lactate.“
The gelatin is a binder and filler, and a cheap way of stabilzing the yogurt. For anyone who is a lacto-ovo vegetarian, the gelatin is likely an animal product. The cornstarch is a thickener, and modified – meaning it’s been chemically altered. And the milk and whey protein are concentrated – also processed. This particular yogurt has a total of 14 grams of sugar.(Complete nutritional information on all of their products can be found at activia.ca)
Activia is not the only yogurt that falls a bit short nutritionally. To be sure what you’re buying is not full of additives and sugar, check the nutrition label and ingredient list, and examine the sugar content. There are about 4 grams of naturally occurring sugars in 100 grams of plain yogurt, anything above 4 grams of sugar is added sugar. To put this in context, 4 grams is equal to 1 teaspoon.
A better choice.
There are better choices out there for those who want to eat yogurt. Purchase high quality yogurt with pure ingredients. The best choice is to buy plain yogurt with no additives, and mix it with fresh fruit and a dollop of honey for sweetness. Organic Meadow, for instance, is one of the best yogurts available.
The best sources of probiotics.
For those looking for a good dose of probiotics, yogurt is not the answer. The quality and quantity of probiotics in yogurt (even the good stuff) is negligible, and they won’t do much to help digestion. Instead, supplementation is the best way to get probiotics to ensure a healthy gut.