Research Round Up: Health Benefits of Probiotic Foods

Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Leigh-Anne Wooten, MS, RDN/LDN, FAND.

Probiotic foods like kefir, a fermented milk drink, have been consumed around the world for ages, but have only more recently risen in popularity in the U.S. thanks to their many health benefits. Here are some frequently asked questions about probiotic foods, backed by the latest evidence.

What are probiotics?
Probiotics are quite the buzzword these days and for good reason. Directly translated from Greek and Latin, probiotic means “for life”. Also known as good bacteria, these live microorganisms that help keep the body healthy and functioning properly, can be found in certain fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, and some cheeses. They are also native to our GI tract.  We are born with good bacteria already inside our body. Our job throughout life is to feed them with prebiotics which include soluble fiber and certain sugars found in plants. Common prebiotics include bananas, apples, oats, wheat bran, and flax seeds.

Probiotics play a role in many functions in the body.  They can:

- Help digest food
- Keep bad bacteria from growing which can lead to infection
- Make vitamins including vitamin K and the family of B vitamins
- Support the cells that line the gut (also known as the GI or gastrointestinal tract) by acting as a barrier to prevent bad bacteria from entering the blood
- Help turn immune cells on and off when needed
- Help metabolize food and convert it to energy for the body to use or store for later
- Increase the absorption of certain nutrients

What health benefits do the probiotics offer?
Until recently, most people thought of probiotics as something that only helped with digestion or was something to take while on antibiotics to prevent adverse effects on the GI tract.  However, recent research is revealing a much more complex relationship between probiotics and our bodies.  While we continue to learn more each day, there is significant research that suggests that probiotics not only support healing in people with certain medical issues but can also help healthy people stay healthy by supporting everything from immunity and allergies to gut, oral, and even mental health.

Gut Health. Probiotics can help relieve symptoms of diarrhea and other digestive issues including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), colic, and ulcerative colitis.  They also help replenish the good bacteria already taking up residence in the gut.

Protein Absorption. We know that the human body is able to absorb protein that comes from animals better and more efficiently than protein that comes from plants. Interestingly, research has shown that probiotics can increase the absorption of protein, especially plant-derived protein.

Lactose Intolerance. Even when a probiotic food is made from dairy (which naturally contains the sugar lactose) probiotic fermentation makes it 99% lactose-free. This is because probiotics break down the lactose, making kefir and other dairy-based probiotic foods well tolerated by many with lactose intolerance.

Immunity. 70% of a person’s immune cells are found in the gut. Good bacteria, including those found in probiotic foods, not only support our immune cells but are also an active part of our defense system. They can both stimulate and regulate immune cells, turning them on and off when needed.

Allergies. Probiotics may reduce symptoms in those who suffer from allergies, especially hay fever and atopic dermatitis.

Mental Health. This is an active area of research, and emerging data is showing a significant link between probiotics and decreased levels of depression, stress, and anxiety. Scientists are focusing on a concept called the gut-brain axis; the idea that these two seemingly unrelated body systems are in fact linked and both communicate and interact with each other.

Infection. Numerous studies have shown that probiotics can decrease respiratory, gut, vaginal, and urinary tract infections in generally healthy people.

Oral Health. Probiotics may help prevent cavities and support overall oral health.

Nutrient Dense. I think we’ve made the case for the health benefits of probiotic foods in general, so let's focus in on one that offers these probiotic benefits and is packed with nutrition: Alexandre Family Farm A2/A2 Organic 100% Grass-fed Probiotic Kefir. There are quite a number of nutrients especially abundant in Alexandre Kefir, in particular, because it is made with easy-to-digest A2/A2 organic whole milk from 100% grass-fed cows on certified regenerative organic pastures.

That’s a lot, so let’s unpack it starting with “A2/A2”.  There are two types of protein found in milk: casein and whey.  If we look specifically at casein, there are two shapes that this protein comes in, A1 and A2.  Studies have shown that some people’s bodies are better able to digest the A2 form of casein and that the A1 form can cause some tolerance issues. However, most milk available in stores has the A1 form of casein.  The cows at Alexandre Family Farm have specifically been bred to ensure that their cows only produce A2/A2 organic milk, making both their milk and kefir more tolerable to those who have milk sensitivities. (Those with a milk allergy should not consume either type of milk.)

When we look at 100% grass-fed and certified regenerative organic from a nutrition perspective, this means that the land and the grass that the cows graze on are more nutrient dense -- translating to milk and kefir that has comparatively more nutrients, especially Omega-3 fatty acids -- than conventional alternatives. Omega-3s, also known as healthy fats, are an essential part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect how cells function. They are also essential for making many hormones.  Omega-3s have been shown to help prevent some chronic diseases including heart disease and stroke. They are required for brain development during early life and are also being studied for their positive impact on overall brain health.

Alexandre Family Farm A2/A2 Organic 100% Grass-fed Probiotic Kefir is also packed with 10 grams of protein per cup.  Protein is one of the most important building blocks in our body helping to form everything from muscle, hair, nails, and bones to enzymes and even hormones.  Including protein with meals also helps us feel fuller for longer periods of time because protein slows down digestion and absorption of our food.

This kefir also provides 20% of your daily vitamin D needs, and 30% of your daily calcium in just one cup. These two vitamins do a lot on their own but also work synergistically. We often hear that calcium is needed to support strong bones, but it’s also needed for the heart, muscles, and nerves to function properly. Interestingly, the body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Without vitamin D, the body is not able to use the calcium you ingest. Research shows Vit. D also supports long-term health and the less is better when it comes to added sugar.

Picking the best probiotic.
There are three things you want to look for in a probiotic: the type of bacteria present, the number of ‘live and active’ bacteria, and the other benefits the ‘medium’ (kefir, pill, yogurt, kimchi, etc.) brings to your health (and the health of the planet!).

Let's start with the numbers. First, the count. This is represented in a unit called CFU or “colony forming unit”. This refers to how many microorganisms (bacteria) are present and healthy enough to build their own colony once they get to the gut. These probiotic colonies grow and work in the gut, fed by undigested food also known as probiotics. Probiotics in products can range from millions to trillions.

Most kefirs contain 15-20 billion CFU from 6-12 different kinds of bacteria.  Compare this to Alexandre Family Farm Kefir which has about 3 trillion live and active cultures per serving from 24 different kinds of good bacteria and yeast.  While these numbers may sound incredibly high, for perspective we have between 300-500 different species of bacteria for a grand total of approximately 100 trillion bacteria already living in the gut. There are as many bacteria in the gut as there are cells in the body.

Now when it comes to the kinds of bacteria, the names get pretty technical. Each very science-y name contains the genus, the species, and the strain that helps identify the specific kind of bacteria.  For example, bifidobacterium lactis, lactobacillus acidophilus, lactococcus lactis, and streptococcus thermophilus are a few of the bacteria present in Alexandre Family Farm Kefir.  While the research on which types or species of bacteria are related to specific outcomes is still young, it is understood that diversity is our friend. Some species are thought to interact with the immune system while others focus on aiding digestion.  Some probiotic species rapidly recover after a person uses antibiotics, but some species and strains do not. The more diverse the number of strains and species, the greater the opportunity for having the probiotic your body needs.

Finally, the medium that the probiotics are found in (kefir, pills, yogurt, kimchi, etc.) can offer their own set of benefits for both people and planet.  Alexandre Kefir comes from America’s first certified regenerative organic dairy, which is proven to improve the health of the soil, the biodiversity of the ecosystem and conserve water, while also sequestering (literally) tons of carbon.  The milk from these 100% grass-fed cows is significantly higher in omega 3’s, a healthy fat essential for health, and currently lacking in most American diets.  Alexandre Kefir also packs 10 grams of protein in each serving, 20% of your daily needs for Vit. D, is gluten-free, and has no added sugar.  This is kefir that makes you feel good, and you can feel good about!

Can probiotics really make it through the gut without dying?
Probiotics have a rough journey from the mouth to their final home, mainly in the large intestine and colon. They must make it through digestive enzymes, bile acids (which help to digest and absorb fat), and the acidic environment of the stomach. Some strains are more robust and better able to tolerate these conditions than others. For example, one strain of probiotic that happens to be in Alexandre Kefir, lactobacillus acidophilus (which translated means ‘acid-loving’), can survive in the stomach’s low pH. All that being said, it is normal for some bacteria to die in transit, which is why the research and recommendations say to eat probiotic foods daily and in these high numbers of millions to trillions.

Want to bring more probiotics into your diet? The choice is easy with Alexandre Family Farm's A2/A2 Organic 100% Grass-fed Probiotic Kefirs and Yogurts, sold at retailers all across the nation! Find them near you with the Store Locator.