When confronted by the array of yogurt in grocery stores, it's no wonder shoppers may be a little confused over which brands contain good bacteria called probiotics, which some research suggests will help our health.
Probiotic cultures are beneficial bacteria that occur naturally in the digestive system of animals and humans and may keep bad bacteria and yeast from growing.
Normally we have an abundance of friendly bacteria, but stress, antibiotics and poor food choices can offset the balance of good and bad bacteria.
Probiotic cultures can be found in many fermented foods and are being added to a number of food products.
Worldwide, dairy products represent the highest share of the functional foods market. Probiotic cultures are the single most important bioactive ingredient.
Claude Champagne, a scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Food Research Development Centre in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., leads a research team working closely with the food industry to extend the use of probiotics into other non-dairy food products or expand into other probiotic applications.
"We need to determine what type or form of ingredient or probiotic should be selected and how much must be added to have a beneficial effect," he says.
Introducing probiotic cultures into food products isn't as simple as we might think.
"Whether one wishes to supplement a beverage with antioxidants or probiotic cultures, one has to answer the same questions," says Champagne.
These include whether there are toxicity issues and whether the cultures are destroyed during processing or stable in storage.
"And most important is to ensure that consumers are receiving the claimed amount of probiotic cells to provide credibility to the probiotic sector."
Champagne says he is starting to find ways to ensure probiotic products are not altered by food to which they are added. Consequently, his research team is studying three probiotic encapsulation methods and examining how they interact with food products.
One example is what occurs when probiotics are added to frozen yogurt or breakfast cereals.
He says micro-encapsulation holds promise as a way to stabilize the probiotic cells during food processing and storage. This technology may also help cells survive in the gastro-intestinal system and support the release and growth of probiotic cells.
Returning to the yogurt dilemma, Champagne says that under Health Canada guidelines, there should be one billion cells in a 100-millilitre container.
"But a lot of yogurts don't have probiotic cultures in them and rather are manufactured with starter cultures which are mainly designed for fermentation and the label will read active bacterial cultures."
"But the ones that are considered probiotics have special strains in them and these increase in health value. They should be labelled as probiotics."
Champagne says that a few years ago there were discrepancies with the specific numbers of good bacteria going into yogurt.
"Right now I think the companies are putting in more quality control," he says. "What they do not say with respect to probiotics and the law is how many cultures they must have in them."
In the meantime Champagne believes research into ensuring probiotic viability in foods will "have a positive technological impact on Canadian probiotics producers and food manufacturers."
"Our research will go a long way to standardize the health effect of probiotics on food," he says. "This will benefit consumers and help government officials more effectively assess the health claims of food products containing them."