Should we swallow probiotic culture?

By Ruth Joseph, March 4, 2010
Actimel and other probiotic drink producers make health claims for their products. But are they justified?

Actimel and other probiotic drink producers make health claims for their products. But are they justified?

The subject of probiotics is huge and controversial. You may not even know what constitutes a probiotic but you will have certainly seen the adverts for those little pots of yoghurt drinks extolling the virtues of "friendly bacteria".

So what is a probiotic? According to Biocare - a reputable supplement company - "probiotics are bacteria that are natural residents in the human digestive system and are beneficial to health". For within the human gut resides a complex ecosystem of micro-organisms essential for human functioning.

It is thought that the average human body may contain 100,000 billion of these organisms within the human digestive tract, while billions more occur in the skin, genito-urinary and respiratory tracts.

"A proper balance of these friendly bacteria can have a positive influence on many aspects of human health," adds Biocare, "they help us digest food properly and support the immune system. The most important of these friendly bacteria are L.acidophilus and B.bifidum." Their role is to ward off and inhibit the reproduction of numerous, harmful bacteria, maintaining a balance of good gut health.

But the digestive system may be damaged, leading to an invasion of bad bacteria.

Use the drinks with caution

This can be caused by a diet high in junk food, processed foods, high sugar use, a diet high in meat and chicken, a stressed lifestyle, smoking, alcohol, sickness, travelling abroad, a change in foods and water, prescribed antibiotics and even just getting older. All these factors will affect the bacteria in your stomach which, in turn, might make you sluggish and give symptoms of wind, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea.

Until now, doctors and nutritionists have been sceptical of the value of proprietary drinks that are recommended to be taken once or twice a day.

But a Biocare nutritionist feels that these drinks have their place in the modern diet. However, she qualifies her statement by saying that they are useful only if you are in relatively good health, if the probiotic is used for only minor digestive disorders and the drink is not too high in sugar (look at the label and note where the sugar is placed - the biggest ingredient is always first).

For those who simply want to improve their diet slightly and enjoy the little drinks, they will do no damage. And in fairness, Activia's website stresses that these drinks should only be taken in conjunction with a healthy diet - that is eating five fruits and vegetables a day, plenty of natural fibre using healthy wholegrains, adopting a Mediterranean eating pattern which includes some low-fat protein for growth and repair in the body plus one to one-and-a-half litres of water per day. It also emphasises that regular exercise is hugely valuable in the fight against all disease.

Certainly, these drinks contain a source of calcium which is necessary for healthy bone growth and, as long as you check the difference between the products and their contents so as to decide for yourself which is most suitable, these products can have a place in a modern diet.

However, if you are sick, the multiple strains contained in some of the drinks should be used with caution.

If a probiotic is recommended, then probably an organic, natural, low-fat yoghurt plus a good quality supplement that has been tried and tested for its efficacy would probably be a better idea. For example, there are those physical problems such as thrush, where even the slightest addition of sugar can cause even more even more unfriendly bugs to flourish within the gut. These will manifest themselves by discomfort through lower itching and stomach bloat.

Despite this need for a probiotic to function with therapeutic involvement, a new product called Galaxy Probiotic is now available. The Galaxy website does not emphasise good health. Yet it is being marketed as "Thick creamy and made with real Galaxy chocolate, this is the UK's first chocolate probiotic drink"!

In the past, Galaxy chocolate has been marketed as a luxury product. The Grocery Trader describes the probiotic drink market as "currently valued at £221.2 million growing 1.5 per cent in value over the last year". Certainly a lucrative market.

However, it might pay to have a look at the ingredients of Galaxy Probiotic: skimmed milk (65 per cent), water, sugar, chocolate (3 per cent) (sugar, cocoa butter, skimmed milk powder, cocoa mass, lactose, vegetable fat, whey powder, milk fat, emulsifiers: Soya lecithin, E476, water, flavouring), cocoa powder, stabilisers: modified tapioca starch, E460, E466, E415, E407, Whey powder, malt extract, glucose syrup, skimmed milk powder, emulsifier: E471, wheat flour (heat treated).

If you fancy a chocolate drink, fine, but will this product help to make your digestive system healthier? I will leave you to make your own decision.

Last updated: 10:21am, March 5 2010