Apart from the bad bacteria that cause disease in the human body, there are many bacteria that are not bad and are actually good and provide many health benefits. These are known as Probiotics, a term, which literally means “for life”. Probiotics are present in many foods such as yogurt and are also available as supplements. To better understand probiotics and probiotic foods you should be aware of the terminology that is used in relation to probiotics. Let’s define and explain some of the terms so that you can better understand what you are reading and learning about probiotics.
What is a bacterium?
Let us start with understanding what a bacterium is. Bacteria are a type of unicellular (single-celled) microscopic organisms that have a simple structure. They can survive in a variety of environments including soil, water, air, plants, human bodies, volcanoes, oceans etc. In your gut billions of bacteria live some of which are beneficial and some are disease producing. To be healthy and free of disease a balance has to be maintained between the number of good and bad bacteria.
The big three terms you need to know
Probiotics are living organisms that are good for your health. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Probiotics are bacteria and yeast that your body needs and uses in a positive way. They are bacteria that have a positive effect on your body (“the host”). These bacteria are not responsible for causing or promoting disease in the body.
There is a balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria on and in our bodies. If this balance tip towards the “bad” bacteria, say you get an infection, then adding probiotics is a step toward bringing that balance back to neutral, or even more towards the “good” bacteria.
Prebiotics are essentially food for probiotics. Eating them helps the probiotics to be able to work better and more efficiently. Prebiotics are not something that can be digested, at least not by humans. A few of the common prebiotics are carbohydrate fibers known as oligosaccharides and inulin. Prebiotics are present in fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains (not refined grains!).
The absorption of some important minerals such as calcium have been shown to be enhanced by prebiotics. These minerals in turn assist the probiotics in functioning properly.
Prebiotics have not been as well studied as probiotics. They could turn out to be as important as probiotics when it comes to our health.
Inulin: Inulin is a type of prebiotict that helps the probiotics to work better and stimulates their growth. Inulin is the most widely popular prebiotic. Inulin is present naturally in many plant foods such as bananas, artichokes, garlic, rye, barley, asparagus, chicory and wheat.
Synbiotics are something which contain both probiotics and prebiotics. Sometimes it is possible to include both together, such as in a food like yogurt or kefir. Some supplements are made with both probiotics and prebiotics included. Other times you may need to worry about taking both the supplement probiotics and the prebiotic as separate entities. The two work together to ensure that your system is getting enough quantity of the healthy, beneficial bacteria it needs.
Some other terms you need to know
CFUs: CFU stands for colony-forming unit. It is the way probiotics are measured. Most times you want to find supplements with the most CFU of each beneficial bacteria you are looking for. You should aim in the range of 1 to 10 billion.
Genus, species and strain: This is how bacteria are given their names. The first word in the name of a bacterium is the genus. It is the largest group to which the bacteria belong. The various types of individual bacteria are referred to as the species. Some bacteria are further divided into several strains, differentiations within the species. The last part of the name denotes the strain or differentiation of a bacterium. It is usually letter, numbers, or a combination of the two. An example of a long name is: Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1. In this name the genus is Lactobacillus, the species is acidophilus, and the strain is DDS-1. Not every bacteria will have a strain label.
Culture: A culture is an artificially grown colony of live microorganisms such as bacteria in a clinical laboratory, usually for a scientific purpose.
Live, Active Cultures: All cultured products start with the presence of live, active cultures of bacteria. The microorganisms are alive in order to do their work. During production of many products heat is used, which kills off the bacteria, or at least makes them inactive. For example, yogurt is produced using “active cultures.” Without active cultures you could not turn the milk into yogurt. However, the active cultures may not survive and get destroyed in the production process in order to provide any human benefit. So a claim made by the manufacturer on a food label that says “made with live cultures” can still imply zero probiotic benefits. It does not indicate that the cultures present in the product are still alive, it just indicates that they were alive when the product was produced. Similarly, a food label that reads “contains live cultures” does not imply that it contains active live cultures that are fully functional. If you are seeking full probiotic benefit from a product, you need the presence of both “live and active cultures” in it.
Dysbiosis: This is the term used to denote the condition when good and bad bacteria are out of balance in your body. Dysbiosis can occur when you are taking oral antibiotics. You have to take probiotics to correct this problem.
Starter bacteria: It is the bacteria present in the culture that is used to begin the fermentation of a product such as cheese, yogurt, sour cream, kombucha etc. to make it. The term starter bacteria refers to both the bacteria strains used and the total number of bacteria present in the culture.