Are probiotics good health or just hype?

LOS ANGELES Probiotics are the newest health craze to hit the shelves, promising immunity boosts, digestive health and weight loss. But these products also leave consumers with one more side affect -- confusion.

"What I see is a lot of misguidance and misunderstanding, and basically a free-for-all," said Probiotics expert and manufacturer Natasha Trenev.

Trenev admits the concept is complex and often overwhelming.

"There's actually a thousand species of bacteria in our GI tract, and within each species, hundreds of strains," said Trenev.

Those strains can help digestion, metabolism and overall health. But dietitian Ashley Koff warns digestive balance is easily disrupted.

"Sometimes antibiotics, different medications, different things throughout our life that we're doing, etc., may reduce the amount of good bacteria, which can generate some not-so-healthy results," said Koff.

Bloating, constipation and diarrhea all require different kinds of bacteria to get you back on track, which you might have to consume in copious amounts. So while some companies are quick to offer probiotic promises, beware -- many of these can be misleading.

"When I see an ad that says 'Eat this' - eat anything - for two weeks and your years of digestive problems are going to go away, I'm going to call the bluff on that," said Koff.

Having several strains of bacteria is nice, but what's more crucial is how much of a particular strain the product contains.

When you take a vitamin or mineral, experts generally tell you how much of the nutrient you need. With probiotics, that's not generally the case -- but it should be. Measured in colony-forming units (CFUs), your product should have over a billion per serving for the product to be truly effective.

"The standard is not less than two billion if you want to have a minimal probiotic effect," said Trenev.

The recommendation is two to five billion probiotic bacteria a day, yet there's no government regulation.

"If it's not on the package, then go that next step and look at their Web site, or call the company, or speak to a health care practitioner," recommends Koff.

Since heat kills this bacteria, there's no guarantee that probiotics live through the shelf life of products. How they are stored, along with how you take them, is important.

"Avoid hot liquids, you avoid coffee, you avoid alcohol, because alcohol is obviously a sanitizing agent," said Trenev.

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