8 Jul 2016

Probiotics and gut health: not all yoghurt is equal

From Nine To Noon, 9:28 am on 8 July 2016

Yoghurt Photo: Pixabay

Mirjana Curic-Bawden is the principal scientist from the commercial yogurt making microbe manufacturer Christian Hansen. Marketed as "friendly" bacteria that aid digestion, probiotics are live cultures said to benefit gastrointestinal health. But, from the US, she told Nine to Noon while all probiotics are live cultures, not all live cultures are probiotics.

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

Do you need two specific types of bacteria for yoghurt to be probiotic?

You need additional species in there and my understanding is that in New Zealand and Australia you have a little bit more of a regulated market and you have products that are real probiotics. You have a comprehensive guideline on the labelling, so that really helps. Here there is lots of confusion because the true probiotic definition and regulation do not match in some of the countries. Probiotics are a live micro-organisms when administered an adequate amount. It has to be a specific strain. The probiotics have their own names and they have clinical research behind them so you can actually say something about their beneficial effects.

What is the actual definition of a probiotic? When you’ve explained what needs to be present, is it the fact that they’re living and that they have health benefits?

Yes, it needs to have an adequate amount of health benefits. Typically you have to consume 1-10 billion cells of that specific probiotic to feel the benefits. It is easy (for some of the strains) to deliver that in one serving of yoghurt.

If it’s yoghurt that’s not probiotic, does it have health benefits?

It helps digestion of lactose and that’s the only benefit. There is some emerging evidence around diabetes, but I am not sure if it is related to specific yoghurt culture or not, so there is really no science to back the benefits of yoghurt itself other than the digestion of lactose.

What are the verifiable benefits of the probiotics?

Probiotics also help with lactose digestion and probiotics typically survive the passage through the digestive system. Some strains trigger a better immune response and there is clinical documentation behind this. It also offers some health regularity. Some would prevent intestinal disturbances… Probiotics cannot cure the disease, but they will help with antibiotics associated with diarrhea.

There is a lot of research about how our modern diets perhaps have resulted in a reduction in the variety of bacteria in the gut. Is it true that a very broad variety of bacteria in the gut is overall likely to have health benefits?

We can lose some of this beneficial bacteria over time due to antibiotics used or medication or travelling or aging and probiotics will not contribute to diversity but it will help with some of the activities of the microflora in our guts in combination with, for example, the consumption of fibres, as some yoghurts contain prebiotics, which are fibres, and probiotics and that also helps intestinal health and formation of the right compounds to keep our system healthy