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Ask an Expert - Probiotics

I’ve seen a lot of ads for prebiotics and probiotics. What are they and why are they of interest?
Ask an Expert - Probiotics

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By Michelle Strang, M.S., R.D., Extension Agent, Cass County, NDSU Extension Service

Probiotics are live microorganisms (mostly bacteria) that act like the “good” bacteria that grow naturally in your body. Prebiotics are food products we cannot digest and absorb that pass through our intestinal tract and act as food for the probiotics to work and thrive.

Probiotics are found naturally only in a few foods such as yogurt, while prebiotics are found in many foods such as whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, honey and artichokes. Both probiotics and prebiotics are added to many foods and available as dietary supplements.

We all have a different mix of friendly and unfriendly bacteria in our bodies, and the interaction between your body and its microorganisms is very important to your overall health. The good bacteria are needed for a healthy digestive system, but they also help protect against unfriendly microorganisms that can cause disease. Probiotics may help prevent or offset side effects from antibiotics or lactose intolerance, such as gas, cramping or diarrhea. People also are interested in how probiotics may improve our immune response.

Some people see a big difference after using probiotic products, while others don’t. This is because probiotics come in many different species and strains, and are designed to treat specific conditions. In other words, probiotics won’t help everybody, and even may cause side effects such as bloating and gas in certain people. More isn’t always better, and the only way to know for certain if a product has enough of the right type of probiotics is to contact the manufacturer.

Probiotics from either foods or pills may be effective if the product has enough of the specific strain that was researched to be effective. Even then, the product may or may not work with your body. Choosing a food product instead of a supplement may be beneficial because you will be getting nutrients along with the probiotics. Also, look for products that are labeled “viability through the end of shelf life” and not “at time of manufacture.” This will help ensure that the live cultures still are active and effective if you consume the product before the expiration date.

Sources:; National Institutes of Health,

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