A growing number of foods on the market today claim to improve our health. These items are called functional foods, meaning that they promote health beyond their basic nutritional function. Probiotics, which are live microorganisms found in or added to fermented foods that optimize the bacterial environment of our intestines, are an example of a functional food.
Our intestines contain a mind-boggling number and variety of bacteria, many of which are vital to maintaining a healthy body and supporting digestive function. Some of these bacteria can also be harmful, which is why it is important to maintain an environment in the intestines that favors large numbers and activity of healthful bacteria while limiting the damage caused by harmful bacteria.
How do probiotics work? When a person consumes a product containing probiotics, the bacteria adhere to the intestinal wall where they get to work to benefit the body. The activity of these bacteria is short-lived, and they need to be consumed daily to benefit human health. The exact mechanism of how probiotics work is still being researched, but one possible benefit is the enhancement of the immune system. Probiotics may also increase the amount and activity of immune cells that help fight infections. Other conditions that may be successfully treated with probiotics include:
• Diarrhea in children caused by a rotavirus • Diarrhea associated with use of antibiotic medications in children and adults • Traveler’s diarrhea • Gastrointestinal conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis • Infections from Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria associated with conditions such as peptic ulcers, gastritis and gastric cancer • Food allergies and asthma • Urinary and genital tract infections in women • Body weight and obesity • Energy levels • Autism, ADHD, ADD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and obsessive-compulsive disorder
In the U.S., most foods that contain probiotics are fortified milk and fermented yogurt. They can also be found in fermented kefirs, kombucha, lacto-fermented fruits and vegetables, as well as in supplement form.
The most frequently used probiotics in the food market today are species of Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. Because these live cultures can only survive for a limited period of time, foods and supplements containing probiotics have a shorter shelf life and must be properly stored and consumed within a relatively brief period of time to receive maximum benefit. In general, refrigerated foods containing probiotics have a shelf life of 3-6 weeks, whereas the shelf life for supplements containing probiotics is about 12 months.
However, the probiotic content of refrigerated foods is much more stable than that of supplements. Healing with food is always the first choice and often the best. If capsules/supplements are chosen, make sure the brand is reputable and the viability of the probiotics has been independently verified.
A handful of local and regional farmers and artisans, including Fermenti Artisan, Hidden Pond Farms, Traders Point Creamery and Organic Valley, offer yogurt, lacto-fermented vegetable products, beet kvass, kombucha, cultured butter and cottage cheese. Look to these producers to not only build up and create a healthy gut flora, but also to support local farmers and artisans.
Functional foods in the form of probiotics can do the body good. By seeking out these foods and applying a few safety tips, you will be well on your way to promoting a healthy body and immune system.
About the Author: Elizabeth Blessing is co-founder and chief nutritionist of Green BEAN Delivery.