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Probiotics: what's hype, what's healthy? Add to ...

The growing field of bacterial health is showing that taking some probiotics (good microorganisms that have health benefits) can alleviate diarrhea, bowel diseases, obesity and even stress − but which products are more hype than healthful?

The list of food and other products claiming probiotic health benefits is growing and deciding which to buy can make your head spin.

Yogurt is one of the food categories that is overflowing with probiotic options, offering different benefits, such as strengthening the immune system or regulating digestion.

And the choices don't end in the dairy aisle. There's also probiotic bread, orange juice, baby formula, pizza and even chewing gum − all advertising various health benefits.

A growing body of research shows that the bacteria in our gut is related to many health problems, from common diarrhea to obesity, urinary infections to stress.

"This is not a fad," says Dr. Gregor Reid, chair of microbiology and probiotics at the Lawson Health Research Institute and a professor at the University of Western Ontario. "This will be an integral part of how we understand human health in the future and we're only getting the tools to explore it now."

"Since we have more bacteria inside us than human cells, it's not rocket science to understand that we need to replenish our bacterial count, especially when half of what we excrete is bacteria," Dr. Reid wrote in a recent article in The Medical Post. "We have been doing this naturally for millennia, but the emergence of prepared foods, reduction in fermented food intake and excessive use of antimicrobial compounds have diminished our intake of bacteria."

But, of the hundreds of products available, which offer actual healthfulness and which only hype?

Only a small number of available products offer proven health benefits, according to Dr. Reid. "Essentially, there are a lot of products that call themselves probiotics, and that are allowed to call themselves probiotics, but they're not."

Dr. Reid says that, while many products may have health benefits, most haven't undergone the necessary research to prove it. Since 2001, the World Health Organization has defined probiotics as "live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit." And yet, no government requires that companies scientifically prove health benefits in order to use the term.

Health Canada has developed a probiotics monograph, which outlines what health claims are acceptable and required risk information, among other things. "It's a step in the right direction," says Dr. Reid.

With lax controls over labelling, products with proven health benefits have no way to distinguish themselves from the pack, says Dr. Reid. In his Medical Post article, Dr. Reid reported that only 12 products available in Canada have undergone sufficient research to claim health benefits. This confusion is a shame, considering the potential of probiotics to help consumers.

Take women's health, for instance. "The diagnosis for bladder and urinary infections haven't changed for 40 years," says Dr. Reid, whose own research has focused on this area. "Women are automatically prescribed an antibiotic, that doesn't always help." Research indicates that probiotics can reduce recurrences of urinary tract infections.

Bacterial health might even have an impact on maintaining a healthy body weight. "This isn't a magic pill, of course," says Dr. Reid. "But there are a lot of exciting studies starting to show that bacteria is linked to obesity."

Dr. Reid recommends researching products' health claims by searching for related studies on PubMed.gov, a website maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

12 PROBIOTIC PRODUCTS TO CONSIDER:

Below are the 12 products available in Canada that Dr. Gregor Reid, chair of microbiology and probiotics at the Lawson Health Research Institute and a professor at the University of Western Ontario, believes have undergone the necessary research to prove their health benefits:

BioGaia Probiotic Drops: Helps treat colicky babies

Florastor, Medical Futures Inc.: Treats and prevents diarrhea

Fem-Dophilus, Jarrow Formulas, and RepHresh Pro-B, Lil Drug Store : Prevents and treats urogenital infections

Activia yoghurt, Dannon: Improves gastrointestinal transit time

DanActive fermented milk drink, Dannon: Reduces duration of colds and helps prevent diarrhea

Bio-K Plus, Bio-K Pharma: Reduces antibiotic-associated diarrhea

VSL#3, Ferring Pharmaceuticals: Prevents pouchitis, used to treat ulcerative colitis

Mutaflor, Medical Futures Inc.: Benefits patients with ulcerative colitis and moderate distal activity

TuZen, Ferring Pharmaceuticals: Relieves abdominal pain and bloating in patients with irritable bowel syndrome

CulturedCare Probiotic Chewing Gum: Fights bad breath

Yoptimal fermented milk, Yoplait: Used when antibiotics are prescribed for Helicobacter pylori stomach infection

Advanced 4-strain Probiotic, Jamieson: For general replenishment of beneficial bacteria

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