How to choose a healthy yoghurt

Are you eating a health food or a "dairy dessert"? We show you how to pick the healthiest yoghurts from the nutrition traps.
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03.Are "friendly bacteria" (aka probiotics) effective in yoghurt?

Probiotics are “friendly” bacteria that can help restore the balance of microflora in the gut if it’s been upset by disease, stress, poor diet or antibiotics. In a healthy bowel, these bacteria fend off harmful microorganisms, aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and contribute to immune function. It has been difficult to scientifically validate the effectiveness of probiotics in yoghurt

Evidence of the benefits of probiotics in yoghurt has been difficult to validate scientifically. In the EU, use of the word “probiotics” has been banned on packaging as the word implies a health benefit, although individual strains of bacteria may be mentioned.

In 2008, a class-action lawsuit in the US claimed Danone overstated the health benefits of its Activia yoghurt by claiming it could strengthen the body’s defences or regulate digestion because of bacteria it contained. Danone settled out of court for $US35 million and changed the wording on its packaging.

To avoid falling foul of health claim regulations and still be able to spruik the benefits of probiotics, food companies use vague, pseudo scientific-sounding language and fancy trademarked names such Danone’s “Bifidus ActiRegularis” (its scientific name is actually B. lactis DN-173010).

The packaging claims its bacteria “can help to improve digestive discomfort such as a bloated feeling” and is accompanied by a funny little diagram. But this health benefit is conditional on eating 250g of the yoghurt each day over four weeks as “part of a varied diet and health lifestyle”.

There is no guarantee that the bacteria survives in the yoghurt to colonise the gut. “The trouble with probiotics is there are many factors that affect whether the bacteria survives,” says Gudorf. “For those products that do list the number of probiotic cultures on the packaging, that number reflects the amount of bacteria added at the time of production. But bacteria can be affected by storage, air, light and moisture, and there is no guarantee that the bacteria survives in the yoghurt to colonise the gut.”

If conditions are right and the bacteria survives, you’d need to eat 100 million colony-forming units (CFU) regularly every day to increase the activity of good bacteria. And, says Gudorf, probiotics by themselves are not enough to increase the activity of good bacteria.

You should also eat 10g per day of prebiotics, which are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as food for the good bacteria. “Don’t eat yoghurt just to get probiotics,” advises Gudorf. “If you’re concerned about IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or bloating see a dietitian who specialises in gut health who can set up a diet plan and direct you to the correct bacteria strain.”

To maximise your probiotic benefits, look for yoghurts that have at least 100 million CFUs. Some yoghurts mention the names of the cultures but don’t list how much it contains, so you have no idea how much – or how little – bacteria is in the product.


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