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Food companies are putting probiotics in everything these days, from yogurt to cereal to salsa and ketchup. Perhaps you’ve heard they’re good for you, but your understanding of them is still a bit murky. Well, join the club. For all the attention they're getting, probiotics are still somewhat misunderstood. Found naturally in our intestines, probiotics are live bacteria that help maintain the natural balance of microorganisms in the digestive tract. There are over 400 strains of probiotics in our system, many of which serve different health purposes. Some studies have shown that certain types of probiotics promote healthy digestion and may alleviate intestinal distress, like constipation or diarrhea. That's probably what prompted a growing number of food companies to start adding them to their products--along with claims of improving your digestion. You may also have heard that some probiotics found in yogurt can even boost the immune system, but few studies have actually been able to confirm this—until now.
A new study published in this month’s issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that drinking DanActive, a probiotic-infused yogurt beverage, reduced the rate of common illnesses like ear infections, sinus infections, the flu and diarrhea in daycare children. It is the largest-known probiotic clinical trial ever conducted in the United States, though we should note that it was also funded by Dannon, which makes DanActive.
Still, it was conducted by researchers at Georgetown University School of Medicine and the study was double-blind, meaning neither the researchers nor the children or parents knew who was getting the product and who had a placebo equivalent. The researchers followed 638 healthy preschoolers between the ages of three and six. Parents were asked to give their child a daily strawberry drink for 90 days during cold and flu season. Some of the drinks were the DanActive product, which contained the probiotic strain Lactobacillus casei DN-114 001 (L. casei); the others were placebos, which contained no probiotics. Parents kept daily diaries of the number of drinks consumed and their child's health.
The results showed that those who drank the DanActive had 24 percent fewer GI infections like diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, and 18 percent fewer respiratory tract infections like ear infections, sinusitis and strep, compared to the children who drank the placebo.
According to the study, the health benefits of probiotics found in traditional yogurt (S. thermopholis and L. bulgaricus) are limited to improving lactose tolerance. However, yogurts like DanActive that supplement their products with the additional probiotic L. casei may be able to boost intestinal and overall health. Because this study only looked at DanActive, it’s impossible to say if other products on the supermarket shelf will have the same effect for sure. But if you aren’t partial to DanActive, there are other options out there with the same live cultures. Your best bet may be another fermented yogurt drink called kefir, which contains several strains of live active cultures including L. casei. Check the label to be sure.