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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
By now you're probably aware of the new string of advertisements featuring both men and women bellydancing with gyrating bare stomachs as the rest of their body casually eats yogurt. The message the commercials are giving is that as you eat yogurt, the probiotics contained in the yogurt are giving your stomach a healthy boost. But sexy bellydancing aside, what's really happening to your stomach and is it really healthy or is it just another marketing ploy to sell you yogurt? And more importantly, can they actually be harmful to your health?

Companies such as Danon, have created a whole new line of yogurts for sale and last year such products have brought in $1.8 million in sales. The marketing buzz was created by the new strains of “probiotics” added into the yogurt. Probiotics are microorganisms, meaning bacteria or yeast, that help
our digestion. The probiotics are introduced to our digestive tract to help both our immune and digestive systems. Although probiotics have been in use for decades, the new strains of bacteria introduced by yogurt companies has been causing some concern among doctors and nutritionists.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized some of these bacteria strains as beneficial but only under certain guidelines. Health Canada doesn't follow the same guidelines. As a result, it is possible that Health Canada may label a strain as being “probiotic” while the WHO doesn't consider it to be beneficial. Similarly, the research done on the benefits of these bacterial strains have been limited to certain demographics such as a recent British study on the benefits of probiotics to the elderly. "It’s good news if you’re over 70 and so sick you need to be hospitalized and prescribed antibiotics," says David Schardt, the senior nutritionist of a nutrition advocacy group. Furthermore, the exact benefit of the probiotic used varies and the benefits can be further limited. For example, some probiotics only help with diarrhea, while others help the immune system after taking antibiotics. Neither of which result in bellydancing abdomens.

According to Canadian Living magazine, Gregor Reid,a Canadian specialists responsible for helping creating the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for probiotics, agrees that until a bacteria has been tested for any additional health benefit beyond "replenishing the organism's beneficial bacteria inside of you" consumers should stay aware. “Until products are tested in human trials, he says, they shouldn't be called probiotics.” Canadian Living reports.

When working at the Wildlife Rescue hospital in Burnaby, I'd generally administer a few grams of yogurt to orphaned bird nestlings. The yogurt would carry the probiotic Lactobacillus acidophilus LA-5, which should help compensate for the nestlings lack of bacteria to digest properly. Normally, the nestlings would receive this strain of bacteria from their mother's regurgitated food. But as these were orphans, the probiotics in yogurt helped replace the missing-mother's bacteria. When these birds matured the probiotics were assumed to be no longer needed and was not administered. This is an example of a perfectly reasonable protocol for when and how probiotics should be used that can be applied to humans as well. In certain situations, probiotics are beneficial to our body's recuperation but after the body has healed there should be little need for such probiotic unless there are further proven benefits. Health Canada does not have any substantial evidence of the ongoing benefits of probiotics as it has little research in the area altogether.

The avoidance of unnecessary probiotics is important if one considers known cases where probiotics increase the rate of mortality. A few months ago, patients with pancreatic troubles were found in one research study to be harmed by mixing different probiotics. “In patients with predicted severe acute pancreatitis, probiotic prophylaxis with this combination of probiotic strains did not reduce the risk of infectious complications and was associated with an increased risk of mortality” reports Besselink et al in the scientific journal The Lancet. To date, there isn't any research that suggests that probiotics can completely replace someone's natural bacteria when they have been killed off.

It's important for consumers to proceed reasonably when considering the benefits of the new strains of probiotics being introduced in food products and not be lured by advertisements with bellydancers flexing their sexy abs.

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