- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Critters for breakfast? How about a midmorning snack of bacteria? Reading the morning paper while enjoying yogurt infused with millions of tiny bacteria is one of the newest food trends to hit the breakfast table. Called prebiotics and probiotics, they’re the darlings of the “functional food” movement.

Functional foods are foods or components of food that may provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. Probiotics, for example, are naturally occurring live bacteria added to some foods to help replenish levels of “good” bacteria in the gut as well as prevent the growth of “unfriendly” bacteria.

Over time, the level of good bacteria diminishes, be it through excess use of antibiotics or years of a diet made up of refined foods and sugar (that pretty much describes the American diet). Specific strains of probiotic bacteria (if you’re a yogurt eater, you’ll most likely recognize these names) are L. acidophilus, L. casei and B. bifidus. Yogurts and other cultured dairy products are some of the more common probiotic-enhanced foods. More are beginning to flood the market.

Prebiotics are the food that probiotics thrive on; they create a hospitable environment for probiotics to thrive. They are a specific type of indigestible ingredient in food. The two most common are inulin and fructo-oligosaccharide. Because they don’t get digested, they remain in the gut stimulating friendly bacteria. Prebiotics are found naturally in whole grains, bananas, garlic, artichokes, onions and honey, to name a few.

The health benefits of these prebiotics appear to be strain-specific. Both claim to promote intestinal health and increase overall immunity. There’s also evidence that some strains may have a positive effects on allergies, colorectal cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. Prebiotics may even help the absorption of certain minerals such as calcium and magnesium (specifically with yogurt containing vitamin D) leading to potentially preventing or delaying the onset of osteoporosis.

While some traditional foods have these good bacteria — for example, sauerkraut, yogurt, miso and kefir — the health benefits come with regularity and quantity. Not all yogurts have the additional good bacteria. Look to the label for verification; it’ll read “live and active cultures.” Look a little closer, and you’ll also notice the specific strain.

Optimal levels have yet to be determined for either prebiotics or probiotics. Much more clinical research needs to be done to hone in on specific strains and their health benefits. Experts do agree that incorporating these foods into your daily diet is very advantageous.

Supplementation in pill form is also available. But why take in a pill what you can get from food?

Snack on yogurt mixed with berries and whole-grain cereal, or on enhanced cottage cheese with added fruit and granola. Add a miso marinade to grilled fish. Try including yogurt instead of ice cream in a smoothie. Or, my personal favorite, mix plain yogurt with one tablespoon of strong coffee or espresso and a tablespoon of chocolate syrup for dessert.

Prebiotics and probiotics may sound like just the latest fad, but don’t expect them to fade away. After all, isn’t everyone looking for a natural immunity booster or a food that goes beyond its potential? I’m just pretty sure we didn’t expect it to sound like something you hear on the “Bizarre Foods” show.

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