What are Probiotics?

Probiotics were defined by a group of experts convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Their definition of probiotics -- live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health effect on the host.  Most probiotics are bacteria, which are small, single-celled organisms. Bacteria are categorized by scientists with genus, species and strain names.

Most Probiotic products contain bacteria from the genera Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, although other genera, including Escherichia, Enterococcus, Bacillus (some commercial Probiotic products which contain Bacillus are incorrectly labeled with a name not recognized by the scientific community, ‘Lactobacillus sporogenes’) and Saccharomyces (a yeast) have been marketed as probiotics. At a minimum, Probiotic products should be safe, effective, and should maintain their effectiveness and potency until they are consumed. This requires a responsible approach both by the producer and the consumer.

There is some debate about whether or not yogurt starter bacteria should be considered probiotics. The yogurt starter cultures, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptotoccus thermophilus, are used in yogurt primarily as starter cultures – to ferment milk and turn it into yogurt. But these cultures do not pass into the gastrointestinal tract alive (they are killed by the conditions in the stomach and small intestine). Therefore, they cannot mediate some probiotic effects that require them to be active going through the gut. But these starter bacteria have been shown to improve lactose digestion in people lacking lactase and some immune enhancing effects have been attributed to them. For these reasons, they are often considered to be ‘Probiotic’.

For centuries folklore suggested that fermented dairy products containing live active cultures are healthful. Recent controlled scientific investigation has supported some of these traditional views, suggesting the value of probiotics as part of a healthy diet. In addition, the emergence of some new public health risks suggests an important role for effective probiotics. The ability of Probiotic bacteria to support the immune system could be important to the elderly or other people with compromised immune function. (It is important that immune compromised individuals ask their doctor before taking any dietary supplement, including probiotics.) Some infections, once thought self-limiting or readily treatable with antibiotics, are now recognized as more serious health threats. Vaginosis used to be considered just an annoyance. Now we know it is associated with low birth weight and increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. New foodborne pathogens have emerged as prevalent and life threatening, including Shiga-like Escherichia coli strains. Multiple antibiotic resistances are a continual threat in the battle against once-treatable infections. And in non-industrialized nations, infections such as rotavirus, claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of infants yearly. Prevention of infections before they occur is clearly the better alternative. Probiotics may be a safe, cost-effective, "natural" approach that adds a barrier against microbial infection.

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