Probiotics in products

Real health benefit or hype?

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Hollis Blume and her children have a sweet spot for chocolate.

"Every day after school I'll give the kids a chocolate bar," said Blume.

But the chocolate bar she has are full of probiotics, good-for-you bacteria with proven digestive health benefits.

"They don't even know that they're eating them. It tastes like regular chocolate," she explained.

Chocolate is just one of the unique, new ways to get your daily dose of probiotics.  We're talking about fortified pizza crust, coffee, snacks, coated drinking straws, even oral care and skincare products.

With the global market for probiotics set to reach more than 32 billion by 2014, renowned gastroenterologist Dr. Shekhar Challa, and author of Probiotics for Dummies, considers probiotics to be the new vitamin.

"Around 30 years ago, we used to take vitamins only if we needed them. Now, we take vitamins because they help you with so many conditions. I believe that's where we are headed with probiotics," said Challa.

There are literally trillions of strains of probiotics, and research shows the benefits of some go way beyond digestive health.

"We know it decreases the incidence of colds. Women's health, decreased urinary tract infection. Allergies, eczema, weight loss," said Challa.

But how can you tell if a product is more hype than help?  Registered dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade says it can be confusing.

"The FDA doesn't regulate probiotics, so probiotic supplements and probiotic foods aren't required to label the dosage or the strain of product they contain," said Palinski-Wade.

"Anyone can put a few bacteria in a bottle and say this is a probiotic," added Challa.

So whether you smooth on, snack on or sip your probiotics, it's important to research them. 

First, experts say stick with labels that list the specific probiotic strains used.

"Look for products that have credible scientific research to back up their claims," said Palinski-Wade.

For things like pizza crust and coffee, that includes making sure the strains are heat resistant.

Also, look for labels that list CFU's.

"CFU's stand for colony forming units, and it's basically an estimate of the amount of viable bacteria cells in a product or supplement," said Palinski-Wade.

Finally, make sure there are enough CFU's per serving to deliver actual health benefits.

"There is enough evidence in the literature that one needs three to five billion CFUs on a daily basis," said Challa.

Hollis Blume says she always looks at labels and is excited abour her latest food find.

"I found some probiotic almonds on a web site and they turned out to be fabulous," she said.

While probiotics are generally considered safe, experts say you should avoid them if you have an immune deficiency.  It's also important to talk to your doctor before you start taking probiotics.

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