It's Alive! Yogurt's Health Secret Is Live Bacterial Cultures

Article excerpt

It's fun to tell people about the billions of bacteria living it up in their yogurt cup. Without bacteria, the world as we know it would grind to a halt (nothing could biodegrade, for example), but it's still a bit unnerving to think about countless microorganisms somersaulting in our intestines. The national mania for disinfecting everything makes it hard for some to accept the microscopic critters in our guts, where they do some of their best work. But there's no ignoring these beneficial bugs, and everyone from farm stands to strip mall retailers are advertising how many types of bacteria their yogurts contain for good reason. Recent scientific studies have shown that the bacteria in yogurt is key to its value as a health food.

The Healthy Snack

Of course, bacteria isn't the only thing that makes yogurt a great snack or breakfast choice. "Cow's milk yogurt is packed with calcium, protein and Vitamin D," says Althea Zincowski, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. People who are allergic to milk products, or very lactose intolerant, can try a non-milk soy-based yogurt. Most, but not all of the lactose (natural milk sugar) in yogurt is digested by beneficial bacteria, so the majority of lactose-intolerant people can eat yogurt unless they are very sensitive. For a more exotic flavor or animal alternative to cow's milk, there are also goat's milk and sheep's milk yogurts.

"Yogurt contains probiotics, the good bacteria that keep the intestinal tract healthy," says Cynthia Stadd, a New York City-based integrative nutrition and holistic health specialist. "They work by balancing the yeast levels in your gut, and they fight the bad bacteria, meaning less bloating and gas, and more regular digestion." These good bacteria have also been proven to shorten the course of infectious diarrhea in children, lessen antibiotic-associated diarrhea, and may help "maintain remission of ulcerative colitis and prevent a relapse of Crohn's disease," according to the Harvard Women's Health Watch newsletter. Some natural health practitioners also support the idea that good bacteria can increase general immunity, help treat acne and stomach ulcers and keep women's vaginal and urinary tracts healthy, though studies are not yet conclusive.

Label Watch

The beneficial bacteria (at least two types, and sometimes four or more) are listed on the label. Better-quality yogurts generally contain more varieties of bacteria (and tend to cost more). Stonyfield Farms, the leader in the organic yogurt market, lists six different live and active cultures, and Horizon Organic, five. Stadd explains, "More bacteria is better," partially because different bacteria do different jobs. L. reuteri bacteria specifically targets E.coli and Salmonella bacterias by inhibiting their growth in the gut. A November 2005 study in Environmental Health showed that adults who regularly ingested L. reuteri reported a reduced number of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.

The ingredient list on the yogurt container offers a wealth of information beyond its bacterial content. "A big issue with yogurts is that some are full of sugar," says Stadd. "People think they're eating something healthy but they're not. Get plain yogurt and add fresh fruit or a natural sweetener like agave or maple syrup." Steer clear of 'fruit' in fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts as well, which Zincowski explains is "just like eating jelly." It contains fruit, but it does not count toward the recommended daily servings of fiber.

The average American eats more than 150 pounds of refined sugar a year, mostly through processed and snack foods. Moderation is the key. "Eating a sweetened yogurt is still a better choice than a candy bar. …