The Promise of Probiotics: Can a pickle a day keep pathogens at bay?

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 3, 2016, by McKenzie Armstrong

Probiotics have gained traction in recent years, becoming one of the latest trends in preventative medicine. These products with live cultures and enzymes, or “good” bacteria, are advertised for their ability to improve health.

Typically found in fermented foods like pickles, kimchi, kefir, yogurt and sourdough bread, they are touted for their ability to improve digestion, boost the immune system, ease side effects of antibiotic treatment, decrease cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood, improve lactose tolerance and treat mild digestive symptoms or intestinal irregularity.

Harvard Medical School also has linked the use of probiotics to delaying the development of allergies in children and treating vaginal and urinary infections in women, treating irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease.

That’s an impressive list. But are these health benefits real?

An entire ecosystem comprising trillions of microorganisms lives in your intestinal tract and forms what is called your gut microbiome. It makes sense that eating foods rich in probiotics would change your intestinal bacteria, or gut microbiota, in a way that’s healthy for you, says Jeffrey Blanchard, professor of microbiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But, he adds, clinical trials have yet to prove that they do.

These bacteria eat what we eat, and the amount and types of these bacteria change often, in accordance with our diet, says Blanchard. “There’s a reason why you don’t feel very good if you’re eating junk food all the time,” he said. “You’re not getting the right nutrients for your body and gut bacteria produce a lot of those nutrients and compounds.

“The yogurt and the whole fermentation process is sort of what has evolved to help preserve foods and extend the shelf life,” he said. “Now we’re starting to ask, is there something good the microbes are adding in addition to just preserving the food?”

Some are already convinced that there is.

Increased interest

There are endless options for ingesting billions of probiotics. They can be found in a variety of new products, ranging from sausages to ice cream and chocolates, and even in bottled water. You also can take a probiotics pill, found in vitamin sections of health food stores.

An increased interest by researchers to test their health benefits and improved efficiency in manufacturing probiotic ingredients has boosted the market. According to a new study by Grand View Research, Inc., a products consultant of San Francisco, the global probiotics market value will exceed $50 billion by 2020.

Blanchard says new research techniques have given scientists the ability to differentiate among thousands of types of bacteria. “So that’s sort of huge,” as research continues, he said. Scientists are beginning to figure out what makes gut bacteria tick. “We can watch how these bits of pieces of DNA change in response to lots of different conditions,” he said.

Though scientists are not yet able to tell what microbes make a person the healthiest, they can tell whether your gut ecosystem is causing or contributing to a chronic disease, he said.

Real Pickles’ probiotics

A pickle company in Greenfield has increased the probiotics in its products by turning to a process based on the traditional, natural fermentation process as opposed to using vinegar to preserve its vegetables.

Real Pickles produces locally sourced and organic pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, beets and ginger carrots that go through the lacto-fermentation process, which uses lactobacillus bacteria to make its pickled products.

“While shelf-stable pickles and sauerkraut found in supermarkets rely on vinegar as a preservative and are pasteurized, our pickles are preserved by the lactic acid that is produced during the fermentation process,” said Heather Wernimont, vegetable and fermentation manager.

Real Pickles doesn’t pasteurize its food because that cooking process kills the bacteria. Instead, the company creates an environment where bacteria thrive, says Wernimont. “In order to preserve the healthful probiotic qualities of our products, we pack them raw, and then refrigerate them until the flavor is right.”

During the pickling process, probiotic bacteria present on the vegetables turn the fresh vegetables into pickles by transforming sugars to lactic acid, acetic acid, carbon dioxide, and other beneficial substances, says Wernimont. These byproducts are what preserves and gives the pickles their unique flavor. Because no vinegar is involved in this process, it’s an entirely different taste, she said.

Zhenhua Liu, professor of nutrition at UMass, said focusing on the health benefits of fermented foods and probiotics should not be considered a fad but neither should they be overemphasized. Probiotics can be beneficial in certain circumstances, he said, but they don’t work for every person or for every disorder.

“If you have a bacterial imbalance or digestive disorder that you have tested for, probiotics may be helpful,” he said. “It’s about understanding what the bacteria can change and what each individual needs.”

There is a lot scientists don’t know about what a healthy microbiome does and how it operates, says Alexandra Purdy, professor of microbiology at Amherst College. The makeup of a microbiome differs from person to person, she said, depending on a host of factors, including a person’s environment, diet, and whether a the individual was born vaginally or by cesarian section. And there are thousands of types of bacteria serving distinct purposes in the gastrointestinal tract.

Blanchard says the questions for scientists and nutritionists now are, what types of bacteria comprise a “healthy” microbiome? And how do we tailor microbiota to serve a person’s health needs?

For example, there may be a way to encourage more bacteria that extract less energy from food, which would help in dieting and curbing obesity, says Blanchard.

To that end, researchers continue to search for more medical applications of live cultures that may be able to treat or prevent chronic illnesses that frustrate conventional medicine.

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