Probiotics: The Inside Story
Call it food with benefits. The functional food phenomenon, and its current rock star, probiotics, is a perfect storm of legacy cuisines, clean ingredients, and new studies keying in on the vital role of gut bacteria in overall health.
There’s no shortage of bold assertions tagging probiotics—live microorganisms found in yogurt and other foods—as a miraculous cure-all for digestive disease, but consider the facts. More than 38 trillion microbes live in the human gut microbiome, responsible for regulating organs, developing the immune system and metabolizing foods. Studies continue to uncover how disease can be prevented by maintaining a healthy balance of bacterial species in the microbiome and the supportive role probiotics might play in driving out bad bacteria and propagating beneficial ones.
Nevertheless: “No health claims have been allowed (by the FDA) for probiotics, so it’s a confusing landscape for consumers,” acknowledges Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., RD, professor at the University of Minnesota.
Still, the research is promising, and there’s no denying diners’ growing interest in fermented foods, which are created through the activity of live microorganisms, such as kimchi and kefir. Not to mention kombucha, a sweet tea beverage fermented with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, now a $475 million industry in the United States.
“If there was a kombucha hipster ranking, it’d be at the top,” says Robert Hutkins, professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who literally wrote the (text)book on fermented foods.
As with most things probiotic, however, the benefits are not yet proven. Hutkins provides some clear explanations as to where probiotics can be found.
Although overlap exists, fermented foods don’t always contain probiotics. “Only specific live microbes that have been verified as conferring a health benefit can be considered probiotics, but there are dozens in foods yet to be studied,” explains Hutkins. “So, while you may have fermented your kimchi correctly, it’s not possible to identify the microbes that have formed and definitively classify them as probiotics.”
Also, realize that while fermented foods such as sourdough bread may seem rich in probiotics, appearances can be deceiving.
“Heating and further processing inactivates the microbes and probiotics are no longer present,” Hutkins explains.
Additionally, most jarred sour pickles and California olives aren’t fermented, just soaked in brine.
How to satisfy customers’ appetites for healthier options? Start with foods rich in prebiotics, which provide fuel for probiotics. These include bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans and whole-wheat foods. Incorporate probiotics by using yogurt or plant milks containing live strains of bacteria in lieu of sour cream. Experiment with fermented foods such as kimchi, miso (in dressings) and lambic-style beers. All contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and live microbes, even if they don’t reach the bar required to be called probiotic.