After Maia posted about multivitamins last summer, we were flooded with questions about probiotics.
- Should you be giving your babies and kids probiotic supplements?
- And if so, which brands are the Good Stuff?
Probiotics are a complex and fascinating topic. I’m a Certified Holistic Health Coach, but not a physician, so I’m not here to dispense medical advice. I do have some information and tasty tidbits to share, including a two-ingredient recipe for my favorite probiotic food. I’ll also share the results of the kitchen-counter experiment we conducted to see if popular probiotic supplements do in fact contain live cultures.
What Are Probiotics?
People throw around the term “probiotics” a lot. What are they talking about? Basically, probiotics are beneficial little organisms, including some types of bacteria and yeasts.
Our bodies are full of such organisms, many of which have co-evolved with our species. Each of us has our own ecosystem of microorganisms—some of them beneficial, and some of them potentially harmful.
I think of this ecosystem as a diverse garden that’s unique to every individual. For optimum health, your garden should contain a wide variety of organisms, and there should be enough good ones to keep the bad ones in check.
Even the youngest babies have beneficial organisms in and on their bodies. These “good bugs” help us in a number of ways, including enhancing our digestion, our immune function, and even our mood. The types of bacteria we have in our guts may even affect our weight.
Before refrigeration was available, people fermented foods to preserve them. Traditional foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, tempeh, and kimchi are natural sources of probiotics.
My ancestors survived the long and gruesome trip from Europe in part because they ate a lot of sauerkraut, which contributed to a healthy gut and robust immune system. These days, we can also get concentrated doses of specific strains of organisms by taking probiotic supplements. More on that in a minute.
What Are Prebiotics?
You may have also heard the term “prebiotics.” Prebiotics serve as the food for probiotic organisms. (Problematic organisms can also feed off prebiotics, but that’s a topic for another post!) These plant fibers are found in foods such as bananas, asparagus, beans and legumes, and garlic. Prebiotics are also often added to probiotic supplements.
Why Do Probiotics Matter for Babies?
Babies have immature immune systems. Although this may sound scary, and sometimes is, it’s mostly positive. It allows them to build their little ecosystems by acquiring healthy organisms in-utero, during birth, and after birth.
Exposing babies early to good organisms helps them get a healthy start. Healthy microbes enable good digestion and an immune system that fights off infections and resists the development of allergies.
Recent research illuminates how babies acquire microbes in utero (both placentas and amniotic fluid can harbor microbes), during vaginal birth, and through breast milk. If your baby has missed out on any early opportunities for natural microbe transfer, or you’re dealing with colic or other digestive issues, you might consider a probiotic supplement.
To Supplement or Not to Supplement?
If you’ve read any of my nutrition posts before, you know I’m a fan of whole-food nutrition. Real food—not tons of supplements—is the foundation of a healthy diet. Therefore, I suggest including naturally probiotic-rich foods in your daily diet.
I’ve been eating probiotic foods for decades, and my German ancestors ate them for generations before me. It helps that many of these foods are delicious! However, I know that not everyone is as excited as I am about fermented foods. It can be particularly tricky to get infants and toddlers to eat them.
Also, some situations call for a bigger dose of probiotics. Pediatricians commonly recommend probiotics for kids who have had a gastrointestinal illness and/or been on a course of antibiotics.
If you have questions or concerns about probiotics, you should take them up with your doctor or pediatrician, especially if there is a serious illness in question.
Cultivate a Healthy Gut
Regardless of where you’re getting probiotics from—food or supplements or both—there are a couple of smart things to do to help your gut (or your child’s gut!) be a place where good organisms thrive
1. Cut back on foods that are hard on your digestion and tend to feed unhelpful organisms. Such foods include processed grains, refined sugars, fried foods, and any specific foods that don’t sit right with you or your child (cow dairy, soy, and gluten are common triggers).
2. Increase the intake of whole foods, especially those plant-based foods that are rich in the prebiotic fiber that probiotics love.
3. Avoid taking/giving antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, and avoid antibacterial products that contain triclosan (Maia wrote about this scary chemical here.
Our Experiment: Are Probiotic Supplements Legit?
One of the reasons that I like food over supplements is that the supplement industry has a spotty reputation. It largely unregulated and this leads to products that may not be pure or effective. Many supplements don’t actually contain what the label says they do, and some are tainted with contaminants. Before you choose a specific supplement product, always do your homework before deciding on the brand.
When it comes to probiotic supplements, you want a product that contains live cultures. We came up with a simple experiment to determine if five popular probiotic supplements do in fact contain live cultures. We chose four child/infant formulas and an adult one based on which had the cleanest ingredients list, as well as recommendations made by our friend Dr. Alan Green:
- Udo’s Choice Children’s Probiotic
- Udo’s Choice Infant’s Probiotic
- Garden of Life RAW Probiotics Kids
- Garden of Life Dr. Formulated Probiotics Organic Kids
- Nutrition Now PB8 Probiotic (for adults)
We poured an equal amount of milk into five glasses and let the milk come to room temperature. We then sprinkled one “dose” of probiotic into each glass and waited 24 hours.
If live organisms are present, the probiotics should start interacting with the milk, turning it into something resembling yogurt. If this does not happen, it may be that the probiotics are not viable (alive). We are happy to report that all five probiotic formulas did indeed cause the milk to transform. Check out the photo! That is far beyond just separated milk–it’s alive!
Note: While all of these supplements appear to contain living organisms, our simple kitchen-counter experiment cannot vouch for the quantity of live organisms or what species are present.
DIY Sauerkraut (Just 2 Ingredients!)
Did you know that you can make your own probiotic foods with just a few simple ingredients? This recipe for sauerkraut calls for just two things—cabbage and salt. I sometimes make sauerkraut in a fermentation crock, but really all you need is a clean jar.
Sauerkraut is not just for adults. One of my grandsons loves it—maybe your kids will like it, too. In order to get the benefit of the probiotics, do not cook the sauerkraut before you eat it.
Adapted from Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon
Makes 1 quart
- 1 medium cabbage, cored and shredded
- 2 tablespoons of sea salt
Mix shredded cabbage and salt in a bowl. Pound the mixture with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer for 10 minutes to release juices. Place in a quart-sized, wide-mouth jar and press down firmly with a pounder or meat hammer until juices come to the top of the cabbage. The top of the cabbage should be at least one inch below the top of the jar. Cover the jar tightly and keep it at room temperature for about three days before transferring to cold storage. The sauerkraut may be eaten immediately, but it improves with age.
If you want to experiment with making more fermented foods, these are my two favorite books about cooking and eating traditional foods:
• Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon
• The Nourished Kitchen: Farm-To-Table recipes for the Traditional Foods Lifestyle, by Jennifer McGruther