Have you benefited from the 'kiss of good health' yet? Yakult, the probiotic drink that actress Kajol endorses, was the first international company to launch a probiotic product in the Indian market in 2007. Amul, Nestle and Mother Dairy have since jumped on the bandwagon – exploiting the curiosity and eagerness of ‘healthy’ consumers. Skimmed milk, low fat curd and sugar free ice creams are all old news now. 'Wellness' ice creams, ‘fibre-rich’ curd and ‘nutrifit’ drinks – consumers are really reeling with choices on their platter.
Russian scientist and Nobel laureate Élie Metchnikoff was the first to suggest, at the beginning of the 20th century, that one can change the composition the gut flora (microorganisms that reside in the intestine), replacing harmful bacteria with useful ones.
In 1930, a Japanese scientist, Dr Minoru Shirota, made a fermented milk drink called Yakult by culturing a lactic acid bacteria strain (Lactobacillus casei) that could travel all the way to the intestine alive.
But do we know what all these probiotic products really are? According to the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, probiotics are “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
There are some microorganisms called friendly bacteria that build our immune system, protect us against diseases, assist digestion, boost immunity of our intestines and help in the absorption of nutrients. But the different kinds of bacteria in our bodies are held in a very delicate balance. This balance is disrupted sometimes, especially when one takes antibiotics, which kill friendly bacteria along with the unfriendly ones that cause diseases. Probiotics replenish the lost bacteria and fortify us against diseases, aggressive advertisers claim.
Interestingly, while the major benefits for probiotic products are gastrointestinal, the side effects too include digestive problems. They might end up causing infections, requiring the use of antibiotics. According to some reports, they may affect your metabolism, your immune system may go on an overdrive and more scarily, it may alter your genetic material.
Microbiologists warn that one in two probiotic health drinks do not contain the bacteria mentioned in the label or contain it in inadequate quantities. So be careful of the brands you choose! Yakult advertises its products as containing Lactobacillus. Mother Dairy's b-active dahi, lassi and curd have Bifidobacterium while Nutrifit has Lactobacillus Acidophilus. Watch out for these two probiotics in the ingredients of your favourite product. Scientists claim that probiotic products should contain a minimum of 10 million bacteria. While Mother Dairy claims its curd has ‘billions of friendly bacteria’, Yakult zeroes in on the figure of ‘6.5 billion’.
So where does all this knowledge about probiotic products, their ingredients, benefits and side effects leave you? Confused? Don’t be. If you want friendly bacteria in your gut and all those advantages that come with them, you might just want to consider some options. According to a BBC series, The Truth About Food, people who were fed prebiotic food (non-digestible food ingredients like garlic that activate beneficial microorganisms already present in our bodies) showed better results when compared to the group that consumed probiotic food. Take your pick!