May 16, 2016 1:00 AM

Author: Libby Mitchell

Probiotics are big business. Sales of products with the live microorganisms are expected to top $10 billion a year by 2018. However, it’s still unclear exactly what they do. While there is information that praises them as a miracle cure-all, there are other studies that say they really don’t do anything at all.

Jean Zancanella, a professor of nutrition with the University of Utah College of Health says the answer is likely somewhere in between. “In recent years, there have been a lot of studies on probiotics and some show promise for certain conditions, but we still need a lot more evidence,” she says.

Let’s start with what probiotics are. They are naturally occurring live microorganisms in dairy products like yogurt and kefir, or in fermented foods like sauerkraut. They also can be taken in pill form as supplements. However, Zancanella says, it is better to consume them in foods. “We don’t know as much about the safety of dietary supplements that contain probiotic bacteria,” she says, “so for now, I would recommend sticking with foods.”

The most touted benefits of probiotics have to do with digestion. The most common probiotic, Lactobacillus, is said to help with the digestion of lactose in dairy products. Another common probiotic, Bifidobacterium, is said to help reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other gastrointestinal conditions. “Probiotics function by helping us digest food,” says Zancanella, “potentially helping to fight off some types of infection–for example, the type of diarrhea that is associated with some antibiotics.”

If you Google probiotics, you will find they are credited with many other supposed health benefits–from clearing up eczema to helping with weight loss. You also will find that few of those claims are backed up with anything other than anecdotal evidence. “There have also been studies on immune function, oral health, and weight loss, but more studies are needed, and so far, much of the evidence has been weak,” says Zancanella.

While the health benefits of probiotics may not be clear-cut, it is clear that there are no real health risks associated with them for people in good health. “There are no known negative health effects from consuming fermented food products,” says Zancanella. “There may be some mild, short-term side effects, such as gas or bloating, but that will subside.”

People with compromised immune systems, however, should speak to their doctor before taking probiotics. 

As the popularity of probiotics grows, there will be more studies into their health benefits. “In the future, we will likely know more about effective dosing and which types of bacterial strains might have benefits,” Zancanella says. 

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