Yogurt is popular among consumers, largely because the special live bacteria it contains are thought to benefit digestive health. But how much influence do these bacteria actually have on digestion and, by extension, on overall health?
It’s a question that plagues food regulators charged with evaluating the health claims made by manufacturers of yogurt and other “functional foods” that contain probiotics or other added ingredients designed to promote health and wellness. Scientists have had a difficult time testing the credibility of these claims because people don’t live in laboratories, where diet and environment can be carefully controlled.
In a new study published Oct. 26 in Science Translational Medicine, scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis demonstrate a rigorous way to test the effects of probiotic bacteria on digestive health: they zeroed in on the community of microbes that naturally live in the intestine and help to digest foods our bodies can’t on their own.
The research establishes a way to understand more fully the complex relationship that exists between diet and the way the gut microbiome operates to digest particular foods.
“Now, we can directly test the influence of existing or candidate probiotics on the ability of our gut microbial community to digest various components of our diets,” says senior author Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor and director of the Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology. “Our group’s goal is to help develop new ways to improve the nutritional value of the foods we consume, in part by optimizing the features contained in the gut microbial communities of people at various stages of life and from different cultural traditions.”