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Benefits of Yogurt
By Beatrice Trum Hunter
From Consumer's Research Magazine Dec. 1990
Yogurt, one of many fermented milk products, has enjoyed a venerable history of use. Traditionally, yogurt was a home or cottage industry. In recent years, large-scale commercial
production in the United States has escalated. The popularity and availability of yogurt has increased, with choices that now include plain and flavored products; whole-, low-, and non-fat yogurts; fresh, frozen, and shelf -stable products; and low-cholesterol, reduced calorie, and calcium- fortified versions.
Part of yogurt's current popularity stems from health benefits derived from eating the product.
For example, yogurt can play an important role in preventing and mitigating many common food-borne illnesses. With viable lactic acid bacteria, yogurt can disrupt the colonization and proliferation of pathogens that cause gastrointestinal illness.
Indirectly, yogurt may prevent food-borne illness in patients given antibiotics, by protecting them against diarrhea. The antibiotics destroy the beneficial microflora in the intestinal tract that normally protect against disease-producing organisms. Yogurt can help re-establish the microflora.
How the live, active, lactic cultures in yogurt protect against intestinal infection is not well understood. At least three mechanisms may be involved:
1) The live, active, lactic cultures can raise the acid level in the intestine, which not only favors beneficial lactic acid bacteria growth, but also other acids (acetic, propionic, and formic ). This acidic environment discourages the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria.
2) Yogurt, which competes with pathogens for essential nutrients in the intestines, may limit disease - causing bacterial growth.
3) The metabolic byproducts of yogurt cultures, too, may create an environment that limits pathogenic growth
Yogurt may strengthen the immune system. Laboratory experiments suggest that live active bacteria in yogurt may enhance specific and non-specific immune mechanisms. For example, when mice were fed a diet supplemented with yogurt, the animals had increased resistance to infection from Salmonella typhimurium. The yogurt-fed animals showed increased antibacterial activity of lymphocytes ( cells that participate in immune functions), and increased numbers of macrophages and splenocytes (infection fighters) at the infection site.
Test-tube experiments reinforced these findings and showed that lactic acid bacteria in yogurt provide immunological benefits. The addition of yogurt to a culture of human blood lymphocytes increased the production and release of gamma-interferon significantly by activating T-cells
(T-lymphocytes, responsible for cellular immunity, formed in the thymus gland).Gamma-interferon has a wide range of immunological activities. To evaluate how gamma-interferon can be stimulated by yogurt, 20 healthy adults consumed yogurt for four weeks. Gamma-interferon increased, as did a number of natural killer cells in blood.
Lactic acid may offer general protection against cancer by stimulating the immune system. In addition, the lactic acid bacteria are capable of modulating certain enzymes that can convert potential carcinogens into active carcinogens.
One strain of lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus acidopholus) may increase the cellular uptake of nitrates in the intestinal tract, and prevent the nitrates from forming carcinogenic compounds (nitrosamines).
The lactic acid bacteria may also reduce the activity of fecal enzymes which are capable of promoting carcinogens.
"Bifidobacteria" are being added to some commercial yogurts. Bifidobacteria are found in the intestines of breast-fed newborn infants. Because these beneficial organisms protect against many pathogens, they have been found useful for adults in correcting flora imbalances created in the large bowel after antibiotics have been given; in assisting the elderly who have impaired gastrointestinal function; and in benefiting individuals who suffer from liver and kidney diseases, as well as cancer patients.
It is recognized that fermented milk products, such as yogurt may be tolerated by lactose maldigesters. (See "Food for Thought," CR, March 1986)
Nevertheless, because of processing techniques, some yogurt products lose some of these potential health benefits. For example, many commercial yogurt products are subjected to heat treatment after the milk is cultured. This practice increases the shelf-life of the products, but unfortunately reduces their immunological benefits, and destroys their usefulness for lactose maldigesters. The heat treatment also reduces or destroys the beneficial, active, live cultures and enzymes.
Labels of heat-treated yogurt products state "pasteurized yogurt" or "heat treated after culturing." The statement "made with viable cultures" is meaningless. Viable cultures must be used to produce yogurt. Look for label statements "contains live cultures", or "contains viable culture."
Popular frozen yogurt products, too, contain little of the beneficial live cultures or enzymes, which are sensitive to freezing temperatures. A recent study of 19 commercial frozen yogurts showed that the amount of culture in most products was below the level needed to offer health benefits.
To boost the viable cultures in frozen yogurts, manufacturers are being offered a concentrated culture in frozen pellet form. The pellets are added to frozen yogurt mixes to increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the finished products.
The author, Beatrice Trum Hunter, MA, has written more than 30 books on food and environmental issues, frequently before widespread public awareness. She was food editor of Consumer's Research Magazine for more than two decades. She is an honorary member of The Price Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, as well as an honorary fellow of The International Academy of Preventative Medicine and an honorary member of The American Academy of Environmental Medicine. She has been the recipient of many awards, including The Jonathan Forman Award of The Society for Clinical Ecology, The New Hampshire Society for Preventative Dentistry, and The Donnon Pepper Humanitarian Award. She can be reached at 243 Falls Road, Deering, N.H. 03244