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Probiotics: Real health benefit, or marketing hype?

February 11, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Probiotics, known as "friendly bacteria," are popping up in everything from pizza crust to candy. But do these doses of probiotics give you any real health benefits, or are they simply marketing hype? Here are some easy ways you can check to if you're getting any benefit.

Chocolate is just one unique source of probiotics. Now they're in fortified pizza crust, coffee, snacks, coated drinking straws, even oral care and skincare products. The global market for probiotics is set to reach more than 32 billion by 2014.

"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," said Dr. Shekhar Challa, author of "Probiotics For Dummies." "I believe that's where we are headed with probiotics."

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," said Challa. "Women's health, decreased urinary tract infection. Allergies, eczema, weight loss."

But finding one that works can be a challenge.

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

"Anyone can put a few bacteria in a bottle and say 'This is a probiotic,'" said Challa.

Stick with labels that list specific probiotic strains used. For things like pizza crust and coffee, that includes making sure the strains are heat-resistant.

Also, look for labels that list "colony-forming units" (CFUs).

"It's basically an estimate of the amount of viable bacteria cells in a product or supplement," said Palinski-Wade.

Make sure there are enough CFUs per serving to deliver actual health benefits.

"There is enough evidence in the literature that one needs 3- to 5-billion CFUs on a daily basis," said Challa.