Probiotic Power: the surprising health benefits of yogurt

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

"Good" Gut Bacteria Vital to Our Health

It's hard to imagine, but the human gut provides a home to more than 3.5 pounds of unique natural bacteria, also known as our personal "microflora." Millions of these "good bacteria" help us resist infections and aid in the digestion and absorption of critical nutrients. (1,2)

If you've ever taken an antibiotic, which kills the good bacteria along with those that are making you sick, you may have experienced gas, cramping and diarrhea - signs that your gut microbes are out of balance. It's estimated that about 40% of children who take an antibiotic will experience antibiotic-associated diarrhea. (5)

That's why smart doctors and dietitians recommend eating yogurt, with "live, active cultures" during and after a course of antibiotic treatment to help restore the healthful bacteria in the GI tract. (1, 6,7)

There is a growing body of research showing that some of the probiotics found in yogurt can offer protection against inflammation, prevent constipation, reduce allergic reactions, and limit the duration of infectious diarrhea in children. (1,5,7,9)

Nutritious and Delicious

Organic yogurt earns the same nutritional merits as organic milk: they both provide a safe, natural and rich source of essential nutrients, including: protein, vitamins, and the bone-strengthening mineral, calcium. 

However, yogurt scores a few bonus points to boot. For one, yogurt contains "probiotics" -- the live bacteria or micro-organisms present in the active cultures that transform liquid organic milk into creamy smooth organic yogurt. The actions of probiotics vary according to species, strain, dose, and even the genetics of the eater, but overall these "good bacteria" appear to aid and improve intestinal function and strengthen our immune system. (1-6). 

We could take probiotics in pill form, but food's a lot more tasty and fun. Plus, the nutrients present in food often interact "synergistically." In other words, the presence of one nutrient enhances the absorption and utilization of another.

Yogurt scores even more bonus points with people who are lactose intolerant because it contains less lactose than milk. (7, 8)  If you suffer from gas and bloating after drinking milk, talk to your doctor, and then give drinkable yogurt a try.

5 Things to Look for when Buying Yogurt

If the dizzying array of yogurt choices at the grocery store leaves you in a quandary, let me help remove some confusion:

  1. Choose organic first and foremost. Diet is the major source of pesticide exposure for children. By feeding our loved ones organic food, we'll decrease their exposure and health risks related to harmful pesticides. (10) Plus, all organic dairy products come from cows that have never been given antibiotics, genetically modified feed, nor injected with hormones. Organic farming methods promote healthier cows, and a cleaner, safer environment for our children.
  2. Look for products that contain both pre and probiotics. A prebiotic is a water-soluble dietary fiber that provides a nutrient source to the probiotics. Prebiotics may appear on the ingredient label as "fructooligosacchariedes (FOS)," or "inulin" (a type of FOS). (4,5) The probiotics used are primarily species of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Streptococcus thermophilus.
  3. Look for yogurt with live, active cultures. As long as the yogurt is purchased before its expiration date, and is not heat treated after fermentation, the yogurt should contain high numbers of both of these bacteria.
  4. Look for yogurt with the least amount of added sugar, at least 6 grams of protein per serving, and at least 20% of the Daily Value for calcium.
  5. Choose brands that use organic and "fairly traded" ingredients, such as cane sugar and vanilla, to help protect farm worker health, safety, and wages. (11)

Be creative and think of ways to interest your family's taste buds with drinkable organic yogurt. Invite your kids into the kitchen and create new recipes together. Try making your own smoothie blends with seasonal fruit, pour over fruit salad, or start your day with a splash over crunchy granola.

Resources and References

  1. "Probiotics in Pediatrics: Using Friendly Bactria to Treat Health Conditions." Cooper, C., Today's Dietitian, January 2010.
  2. "Understanding and Recommending Probiotics and Prebiotics," American Dietetic Association Teleseminar, August 27, 2009.
  3. National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "An Introduction to Probiotics." http://nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics
  4. "Probiotics and Prebiotics in Dietetics Practice." Douglas, L.C., and Sanders, M.E., J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 2008; 108:510-521.
  5. Healing Foods Pyramid, University of Michigan Health System. http://www.med.umich.edu/umim/food-pyramid/dairy.htm
  6. "Probiotics impact the microbiota - but not how you might think," Mary Ellen Sanders, June 5, 2012. http://cdrf.org/2012/06/05/probiotics-impact-the-microbiota-but-not-how-youd-think/
  7. Lactose Content of Common Foods, University of Virginia Health System's Digestive Health Center of Excellence.
  8. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Calcium. Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. August, 2011. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/calcium.asp#h5
  9. "Microbiome: The Critters Within," Gravitz, L., Nature. Vol. 485. May 17, 2012.
  10. "Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children's Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides." Lu, C. et. al. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 114, No. 2, February 2006.
  11. Fair Trade. http://www.equalexchange.coop/; http://www.fairtradeusa.org/

Bone up on your yogurt facts! Did you Know?

Calcium is an especially important nutrient for women and growing children. Yet our diets tend to fall short and our bones and teeth suffer the consequences. (7) Each serving of Organic Valley's organic drinkable lowfat yogurt smoothies contains between 250-300 milligrams of bone-fortifying calcium, plus protein, making them a perfect post-work out, after-game beverage.

Each serving of Organic Valley's organic drinkable lowfat yogurt smoothies contain 2 grams of the pre-biotic, inulin. Prebiotics occur naturally in many common foods, such as leeks, asparagus, chicory, artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onion, grains, honey, bananas and soybeans. Organic Valley's inulin is sourced from organic Jerusalem artichokes. Inulin also appears to improve calcium absorption in young adolescents. (12).

Foods that contain both pre- and probiotics are called "synbiotic" because in combination, the two are more beneficial than either one alone. For example, prebiotics help enhance the beneficial effects of probiotic bacteria in the gut. (4,5)  And probiotics appear to boost the anti-oxidant power of bluberries. Tasty news for people who like to pour creamy organic yogurt over their berries! (13)

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