Probiotics 101: Good Bacteria and Why They Matter

Probiotics in Your Diet

If you’re up on your health buzzwords, you’ve likely come across “probiotics” and know that they’re considered important in the human diet. I’m going to tell you why.

Proboitics are a class of bacteria that you not only require for optimum health but for your very survival. If you think of your digestive tract as a long continuous tube beginning at your stomach and travelling throughout your intestines and bowel, the importance of bacteria can be appreciated. The small intestine is where the absorption of nutrients from your food primarily occurs—nutrients your body depends upon.

However, in the large bowel, many other processes are taking place. Under normal circumstances, this part of the digestive tract contains several pounds of bacteria.

These normal flora of bacteria control the immune system, the manufacture of nutrients, absorption of particles through the bowel, along with the growth of harmful pathogens.

These “friendly” bacteria interact with the fiber in your food and produce chemicals that can improve your health and prevent disease.

There are billions of these probiotic bacteria in our digestive tract that can also control the over-population of pathogens carried in our food and water that we consume every day. Without these friendly colonies of bacteria doing their part, we would not survive very long.

Now, there are some foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut that are made using a fermentation process which populates these foods with large amounts of friendly bacteria. Some of the more common forms of friendly bacteria within these foods are acidophilus and bifidus.

The issue with probiotics is that they are incorporated into foods where they would not ordinarily be found. Even non-food items like toothpaste have been supplemented with normal flora. Unfortunately, when the benefits of a certain product have been shown, they start showing-up everywhere in our food chain or in health-related products.

Although I consider the use of probiotics safe, the effectiveness of ingesting them in this “unnatural” form is highly questionable at best.

Most of these bacteria used in these products are not live cultures stored in a refrigerated environment, while the good types of probiotics typically found in yogurt or in higher quality supplements are kept refrigerated. And this is the form of probiotic which can benefit your health.

The forms of bacteria added to products, for the most part, are not intended to last very long. They usually are not live cultures and have limited value from a nutritional perspective. Simply adding some probiotic bacteria in a dry form does not make the product more healthy or valuable.

What it does is make it a lot more expensive.

Probiotic supplements are helpful but usually are over-priced and unnecessary. These friendly bacteria can easily be obtained from the food you eat every day.

That’s right. The best sources of live probiotic cultures are found in aged or fermented dairy products like yogurt, kefir and aged cheeses. Look for the labels that read “live bacterial cultures.” You should also be getting several billion bacteria per serving, or for each supplement dosage. Some other great sources of these bacteria are fermented pickles, sauerkraut, tempeh and miso.

Your best bet? I recommend you consume at least one serving of plain yogurt without sugar every day with raw nuts and fresh fruit. Now that’s an easy and delicious food remedy!

Nierenberg, C., “8 Tips to Be a Probiotic Pro,” LiveScience website, July 1, 2014;