Probiotics were first discovered by a Russian biologist by the name of Dr. Elie Metchnikoff. He observed that Bulgarian peasants who drank fermented milk were living very long lives and he hypothesized that bacteria produced as a result of the fermentation were providing health benefits.
Dr. Metchnikoff is now known as the father of probiotics. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered (eaten) in adequate amounts confer a health benefit to the host (person)”.
So probiotics are not just any bacteria, they are bugs that provide us with proven health benefits.
Does it make a difference if the yogurt you purchase says “probiotic” on the label or not? I think it does.
In order for good bacteria (probiotics) to provide us with a health benefit, there are three hurdles that it must overcome.
Firstly, good bacteria must survive the processing that it undergoes as the food is made. For example, while all yogurt begins with starter culture, not all starter culture survives to the end of the yogurt-making process and then to the end of the shelf life of the packaged product.
Secondly, good bacteria must survive stomach acid. The destination for good bacteria is the intestines. This is where they join other healthy bacteria that make up our intestinal flora. If the strain of good bacteria used in the fermented food doesn’t do well in acid then it won’t make it to the intestines.
Thirdly, the probiotic must be present in a large quantity. This is measured in CFUs (colony forming units). The intestines require a large number of probiotics to have a health effect.
The use of the term probiotic on the food label is regulated by Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S.
I couldn’t find any information on the FDA website about regulations for the use of the term “probiotic” (If you have a link, please feel free to share it with me!). However, in Canada, only 16 species of bacteria can be called “probiotic” and carry a health claim. These 16 species are all from the families of bifodbacterium and lactobacillus.
So, if you are the “grab and go” type of shopper, gear down as you pass the yogurt aisle long enough to scan for the word “probiotic” and get those healthy bugs working for you.
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