'Good' bacteria-laced dairy items have good health side effects

NUTRITON

November 06, 1991|By Edward R. Blonz

Many of the health benefits from dairy products, such as yogurt and acidophilus milk, depend on the presence of live bacteria. That's right, bacteria.

Despite having a reputation for infection and ill health, not all bacteria cause problems. Some found in foods can be definite assets to health. Research now associates these "friendly" bacteria with:

* Reduction of blood cholesterol

* Protection against colon cancer and other diseases in the intestines

* Stimulation of the immune system

* Enhanced absorption of the protein, vitamins and minerals in milk

* A reduction of the symptoms of lactose intolerance.

The positive effects of the benevolent bugs in food come from their ability to influence the literally billions of bacteria that normally live in the lower part of our digestive system. This population, called our "intestinal flora," plays an important role in digestion and health.

The history of bacteria in dairy products dates to Biblical days. In those days, well before the advent of refrigeration, any attempt to store milk led to spoilage and sour milk.

At some point, however, it was discovered there were different ++ types of sour milk and that only some made people ill.

With little understanding of how or why, people found that small amounts taken from one batch of fresh milk would cause the same type of souring in a second batch. Once soured, though, the milk stabilized and could be stored for longer periods.

"Culturing" of milk became one of the earliest forms of food processing and preservation.

The notion that cultured dairy products might be healthful was popularized when Elie Metchnikoff, a Russian biologist working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, proposed that one's health and longevity depended on the type of bacteria living in the %o intestines.

In his 1906 book, "The Prolongation of Life," Metchnikoff attributed the health and long lives of Balkan tribes to the bacteria used to make the yogurt in their diet.

In recent years, science has studied the factors that influence the bacteria in the intestinal flora. Researchers have discovered that although the flora is usually quite stable, it will be affected by external factors. And whenever there's a rapid change in the flora, we can expect to experience temporary discomfort.

For example, changes in diet, such as the addition or removal of large amounts of fiber, or a switch to a radically different type of diet, can change the flora. That's one reason why it's recommended that dietary changes be accomplished slowly.

In addition, physical or emotional stress will upset the flora by changing the conditions in the lower intestines where the flora live. Some researchers speculate that the effect of stress on the intestinal flora might predispose the body to the diarrhea often experienced by travelers.

PTC Of all the factors nothing affects the flora more than antibiotics. .. When taken to eliminate an illness-causing bacteria, antibiotics also destroy most bacteria in the intestinal flora, thus causing the digestive upset that often accompanies these drugs.

Furthermore, unfriendly organisms, such as yeast, can then flourish because there's no friendly bacteria around to keep them under control. It's one of the reasons why yeast infections often flare up after the taking of antibiotics.

One way to keep your flora on an even keel is to keep sources of "friendly" bacteria, such as yogurt or acidophilus milk, in the diet.

Yogurt, although made from milk, is well tolerated by people with lactose intolerance -- the reduced ability to digest the carbohydrate lactose in milk. The difference is due to the yogurt bacteria which produces their own lactase, the enzyme that breaksthe troublesome lactose into parts the body can absorb.

For any additional benefits, though, the bacterial culture in the yogurt must still be alive. If there's no statement to this effect on the label, check with the dairy company to find out how it makes its product.

Some yogurt contains added acidophilus or bifidus bacteria. These have special value because, unlike the standard yogurt bacteria (thermophilous and bulgaricus), acidophilus and bifidus bacteria can remain a part of the intestinal flora.

Milk drinkers should consider switching to the new low-fat milk with added acidophilus. For a few pennies more, you get all the potential benefits from this bacteria and there's no difference in taste.

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