Updated 29 January 2014

Is it a probiotic?

When buying a probiotic-containing food or supplement, you should be asking yourself four essential questions - or else, you may be buying a sub-standard product.

Probiotics are gaining a lot of media attention with regard to improving the health of our immune system.

Testing the South African consumer’s knowledge on probiotics recently showed that only 14% of consumers in the Metropolitan areas are aware of, or familiar with the term, ‘probiotics’.

Most of them associated probiotics with a healthy immune system. We all know that it is important to keep the immune system healthy. Consumers are now becoming more familiar with the findings of several research studies which prove that probiotics can assist in keeping the immune system healthy.

Considering this important health benefit of probiotics, it is important that we get the message across to the other 86% of the population.

The basics

First of all, we need to know what probiotics are. The term "probiotics" literally means “for life”. The best way to think of probiotics is to visualise live micro-organisms (bacteria), which, when consumed in sufficient numbers on a regular basis, have one or more health benefits.

These “good” bacteria include a number of different strains. However, most probiotic products contain the bacteria Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium strains.

It is important to note that selected strains of probiotics, even from the same species, can have very different characteristics and therefore have different health benefits. That's why it is important to know the exact strain which is being used and what documented evidence is available for that specific strain.

How do you choose the best probiotic?

Consumers are often confused about adding probiotics to their diets. For probiotics to have an effect on health, they must remain stable and alive throughout the shelf life of the products and also in the gastro-intestinal tract.

Heat, moisture, gastric juices and a low pH in the stomach, long shelf life and inadequate packaging of the final product can all easily destroy the “friendly” bacteria.

When buying a probiotic-containing food or supplement, ask yourself the following four questions:

1. Will the bacteria in the probiotic survive stomach acid and other harsh conditions and still be alive when it reaches the intestine? An enteric-coated supplement will assist in bacteria surviving these conditions in the stomach and small intestine.

2. Which bacterial strain(s) are used in the product? Are the benefits of the specific strain documented? Are these benefits supported by scientific evidence?

3. What is the number of viable cells contained in the product? Potency of the product is essential – look out for the probiotic with the highest number of viable (live) bacteria per dose. Several studies have shown that we need between 1 and 10 billion bacterial cells of a specific strain for a probiotic to be effective.

4. What preservative has been added to the food? Pimaricin is the only preservative that, when added to food, does not kill off the live good bacteria.

Taking the right bacteria will keep you out of the doctor’s rooms this winter, because these “friendly” bacteria are vital for keeping your immune system healthy and consequently assisting in fighting infections.

But when taking a probiotic, make sure you are taking a probiotic – a product which really delivers on its proposed beneficial effects.

- (Martie de Wet, registered dietician)

1. Markinor Metropolitan Omnibus 2000 people – August 2005
2. Dung et al. Study conducted by the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia, July 2004.


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