Friday, May 25, 2018

Putting Probiotics to the Test

Beneficial gut bacteria help digest and extract nutrients from everything we eat, and they can crowd out the bad-guy bacteria that make us sick. That's the big idea behind the shelf full of "probiotic" supplements at our local pharmacy or grocery store. Manufacturers claim that these products contain billions of live bacteria and they are often recommended for relief from gastrointestinal problems. But do the supplements actually contain what the labels promise, and how do they compare to fermented foods, like kombucha or miso soup, which are also teeming with microbes?

Researchers from my alma mater, Boston University, recently looked into just this question. After purchasing several drugstore probiotics, they cracked open the pills, diluted the bacterial powder stuffed inside, and dabbed the mix onto petri dishes to see what would grow. "The numbers from our methods have been a little lower than what's claimed on the box, but there are definitely living bacteria in there."
The researchers then tested the probiotic pills against popular fermented rinks that naturally contain good bacteria: miso soup, apple cider vinegar, and kombucha. The results looked very different from the over-the-counter probiotics. While the bacteria from the pills colonized tidy white circles, the dishes plated with fermented foods bloomed in colorful, disorderly splotches. It’s already clear that the foods have greater bacterial diversity than the over-the-counter probiotics.

“A healthy collection of gut bacteria is not one type of bacteria. It’s many types of bacteria, so there could be potential health benefits of having more variety."

Ultimately, the hope is that the research will help doctors and consumers make more informed choices about over-the-counter and food-based probiotics. And while you should always talk to your doctor before starting a new supplement, especially if you’re seriously ill or have a weakened immune system, it typically can’t hurt to give probiotics a try. I would recommend the natural probiotics found in yogurt, kombucha, or apple cider vinegar, but the capsule variety are also good.

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