A few years ago, Jamie Lee Curtis started appearing on my television, telling me about how yogurt would cure all my digestive woes. Not just any yogurt, of course, but Dannon’s Activia, which was “proven” to help regulate the digestive system. Apparently, it could miraculously cure everything from constipation to colitis. I’d heard about the supposed health benefits of yogurt long before Jamie Lee ever started talking to me about my transit time, and I’d heard that the bacterial cultures in yogurt were good for digestion and a host of other things. I’d even taken supplements of acidophilus for years to improve the balance of my intestinal flora. Yogurt is all the rage now, but exactly how much of the “miracle” is medicine, and how much is marketing?
The Bacteria Bandwagon
Yogurt is a byproduct of introducing bacteria to milk. The bacteria ferment the sugar in the milk, producing lactic acid, which causes the milk to curdle to a thick texture. Yogurt with active cultures hasn’t received a final microbe-killing pasteurization, and the live bacteria in the yogurt are purported to aid human digestion. Yogurt is made with types of “good” bacteria that already thrive in the human digestive tract, helping to break down and digest waste matter. Stress, poor diet, antibiotics, or illness can disrupt that delicate balance of bacteria in the gut. When those bacteria get out of whack, it’s possible to maintain a healthy GI tract by replenishing them. Yogurt manufacturers claim that ingesting these beneficial bacteria can ease constipation, improve intestinal transit time, and even enable weight loss.
The bacteria found in yogurt are sometimes called “probiotics,” which is any type of preparation that contains helpful bacteria or yeast. There are many different types of probiotic bacteria added to yogurt or sold as dietary aids; the most widely used are the species Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Industry groups like the National Yogurt Association claim that probiotic products can help with everything from childhood diarrhea to allergies, although many of their assertions have yet to be proven. The idea of using probiotics for health purposes isn’t new; buttermilk and feta cheese have long been considered smart foods for digestion. Research indicates that some strains may be useful for combating lactose intolerance, treating irritable bowel syndrome, and boosting the immune system. Probiotics are useful for helping to ease diarrhea in children and travelers.
A well-known bacterium these days is bifidus regularis, and it’s the bacteria found in Dannon’s Activia yogurt. The bacteria is naturally found in the body of most mammals, but its real taxonomic name is bifidobacterium animalis. The name that appears on the packaging is a creation of Dannon, meant to sound scientific and digestion-specific. Dannon trademarked this particular strain of bacteria, and although the company claims that it will aid digestion in ways that other yogurt won’t, it actually does the same as the bacteria in most yogurt products. Although the company claims that Activia can cure digestive problems, there is no hard research to back up those assertions. The slightly-misleading ads have viewers believe that it can cure constipation and irregularity. Actually, if Activia actually delivered on its promises, it would have to be classified as a drug and regulated by the FDA.
Playing to Women’s Woes
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, about 75 percent of those diagnosed with diseases like IBS are women, and the idea of yogurt as a natural and tasty cure is merely a way to juice up revenue for yogurt companies. Dannon Activia costs about 30 percent more than regular yogurt. In 2008, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Dannon because of the company’s false and misleading claims that Activia yogurt would cure digestive diseases.
Plenty of yogurt manufacturers have jumped on the probiotic bandwagon, although they don’t make the same medicinal claims about their product. Stonyfield Yogurt adds the bacteria Lactobacillus rhamnosus, purported to promote digestive health and boost the immune system, not to treat any specific medical condition. Yoplait also claims that their yogurts contain the most effective cultures. Although other producers stop short of the medicinal claims of Dannon, they’re all seeking to capitalize on the current fad for yogurt.
Pharmacies and health food stores carry intestinal flora in pill form, and because it’s usually printed on the label, it’s easier to know which strain of bacteria you’re getting and how much. The bacteria are supposed to be live and viable, but the FDA doesn’t regulate the supplements, so it’s tough to know how effective or active they really are. However, pills don’t have the other beneficial nutrients like calcium and vitamin D that yogurt can contain. Ultimately, yogurt is still a fairly healthy snack (even when it contains sugar or high-fructose corn syrup), and even if it isn’t always helpful, at least it’s not harmful.
For people who do suffer from real chronic digestive issues like constipation or IBS, yogurt alone probably isn’t going to do much, especially if the rest of the diet is poor. Although things like a high-fiber diet, exercise, and drinking more water are proven cures for occasional irregularity, for those of us who just need a little help from time to time getting things moving, one yogurt is as good as the next.