Consuming healthy bacteria, or probiotics, can improve your body's overall balance of good versus bad micro-organisms, boosting your general health. But be careful -- not all of the probiotic-containing products found on store shelves provide the health benefits they claim.
Some regular foods contain healthy bacteria naturally, such as yogurt and naturally fermented pickles. But pasteurization has eliminated many of the probiotics that should be found in modern foods. The recent boom in probiotic products reflects an effort to re-introduce bacteria that promote good health.
When choosing a probiotic, look for products that list a specific strain of bacteria on their label, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG -- the final two letters identify the strain. A product that simply uses the first two names may include a similar, but not identical, bacterium that doesn't have the same scientific testing behind it. It’s best when the actual product -- not just the bacterium -- has been tested in humans. Don’t be afraid to do a bit of research, especially when a simple Web search can yield a lot of information.
Some additional tips: Look for the word "live" on the package, since organisms killed by processing won't be helpful. The expiration date may be particularly important, because even if a product still tastes good the bacteria may no longer be alive. For maximum benefit, try to consume a variety of different bacteria, as each may contribute something slightly different.