In recent years, the term "probiotics" has become a health buzzword, as several research studies pointed to their health benefits.
Probiotics are usually defined as live bacterial cultures, which contain lactic acid bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. They can be taken as oral supplements or added to food.
Health benefits of probiotics
Research studies are discovering more and more health benefits associated with probiotics, such as:
- Increasing the bio-availability of protein and fats in the diet by breaking down these nutrients in the digestive tract - this is particularly important for infants, toddlers and patients who need building up during and after illness
- Preventing diarrhoea of all kinds - eating yoghurt when you are travelling in strange countries can help prevent travellers' diarrhoea
- Reducing intestinal inflammation and hypersensitivity reactions in infants with food allergies, and those suffering from atopic eczema
- Assist in preventing liver damage caused by excessive alcohol intake
When to use probiotics
Probiotics can be used for the treatment of acute conditions, such as diarrhoea which develops as a result of stress, infection and/or antibiotic treatment. In such cases capsules, can be used which contain saccharomyces boulardii together with foods that contain probiotics, such as yoghurt. Always ask your doctor to prescribe a course of probiotics when you have to take antibiotics and make a point of eating fresh yoghurt during treatment and for at least a week afterwards.
Probiotics can, however, be included in the diet at any time to enhance health and exert a beneficial effect by improving the body's microbial balance.
It is an excellent idea to eat at least half a cup of fresh yoghurt every day to obtain the benefits of these live bacterial cultures. Even individuals with milk allergy caused by lactose sensitivity should be able to eat yoghurt without experiencing problems, because the lactose or milk sugar in milk is changed to lactic acid by the action of the bacteria.
People who are allergic to milk protein may find that they cannot eat yoghurt and may have to obtain their lactic acid bacteria from other sources, such as capsules or sorghum beer, which is also produced by means of lactic acid fermentation.
Foods that contain probiotics
The following foods can contain probiotics if they are manufactured in such a way that the live lactic acid bacteria are not destroyed during processing:
Eating and drinking yoghurt, cottage cheese, milk drinks, powdered milk products, breakfast cereals, infant foods and infant formulas.
Make your own yoghurt
It is easy to make your own yoghurt by either buying a kit and starter culture at certain speciality shops or using the following recipe:
Heat 1 litre of fresh low-fat milk or milk made from clean water and low-fat milk powder to boiling point, cool to blood temperature and add half a carton of fresh, plain Bulgarian yoghurt. Stir well to mix and store overnight in a yoghurt maker or just use a clean thermos flask to keep the yoghurt at the right temperature so that the lactic acid bacteria can multiply.
The next morning you will have a litre of your own, fresh yoghurt. Retain a 1/4 of a cup of the yoghurt as a starter culture for your next batch.
Chill remaining yoghurt and serve with fresh fruit, cereals, porridge, honey or nuts.
The good guys and the bad guys
People often find it difficult to accept that bacteria can be beneficial and improve health. We have regarded bacteria as the enemy ever since Louis Pasteur peered down his microscope and announced that bacteria caused many diseases.
Not all bacteria are harmful, however. Just think of the ‘good bugs’ that are used to bake bread and make wine and beer. Lactic acid bacteria are also ‘good bugs’ and by eating foods that contain live lactic acid bacteria we not only improve our health, but increase longevity. Parts of the world where fresh yoghurt is eaten on a daily basis are well known for the remarkable longevity of their populations.
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.