UC HEALTH LINE: Live Cultures in Food Won't Help the Healthy

CINCINNATI—Many people are flocking to the grocery store shelves to purchase cheese, yogurt and other products that contain probiotics, or live cultures, claiming they help regulate digestion and boost the immune system.


But researchers at UC say these expensive alternatives may not be beneficial for the everyday person.


Jonathan Kushner, MD, associate professor in the division of digestive diseases at UC, says a lot remains unknown about the effect probiotics have on a normal digestive tract.


“There is growing evidence that the ingestion of larger amounts of these ‘good bacteria’ may have real effects by changing our immune responses directly or by competing with any bad bacteria.


“However, there is not enough evidence to prove that it is a significant effect or that the effect is good or bad for us.”


These probiotic products contain supplements of beneficial bacteria found in the human digestive tract which supposedly promote good “gut” health.


Kushner says there are two main kinds of probiotics used in these products: lactobacillus

(lakto-bas-ill-us) and bifidobacteria (bi-fedo-bak-teeria).


He says that studies have shown certain types of bifidobacteria—similar to those contained in Dannon’s Activia yogurt—can help people with functional gastrointestinal problems, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).


“Considering the lack of treatments for these types of problems, it could be worth considering,” he says.


But he says that people with compromised immune systems—for example those with certain illnesses, such as cancer, or people who have recently received transplants—should be careful when eating these sorts of products.


“These products contain large doses of bacteria,” he says. “Even though it is considered ‘good’ bacteria, it could actually invade the body and do more harm than good.”


He says people with other gastrointestinal diseases should ask their physician before eating probiotic products.


Kushner says that even if someone decides to use the probiotic products, he or she should eat them regularly to reap the benefits.


“Research has shown that study participants had to eat or drink up to three servings of the product per day,” he says. “Not only is there little evidence to prove these products are making a difference on your body, but they are also expensive.”


In studies, people have spent roughly $50 to $60 monthly on probiotic yogurt products.


Kushner recommends that healthy people ingest the recommended 20 to 35 grams of dietary fiber daily to ensure a regular digestive system.


“Fiber-filled foods are the best bet in keeping your digestive tract regular,” Kushner says. “Although probiotic products won’t hurt—besides your pocketbook—there’s little evidence that they will help a healthy person either.


“Those ‘clinically proven’ seals on the product’s packaging should be taken lightly.”


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