When shopping for probiotics, the average consumer is bombarded with more user-friendly choices than they were before.  The range of availability can be overwhelming, especially to someone that is not familiar with probiotics or know what to look for.  First of all, there are a large number of different brands of probiotics.  Some bottles contained liquid probiotics, others were probiotic pills, some were capsules and powders.  A person can also get confused by all the numbers on the bottles claiming to have millions of bacteria in each serving.

The term “bacteria” probably brings to mind tiny, alien-looking creatures that invade the body and cause disease and illness. Those bacteria do exist, of course, and that’s exactly why the other bacteria—the “good” bacteria—are so important. Probiotics are those beneficial microorganisms, usually bacteria, that live in the body and help maintain the body’s health in a variety of ways.  There are many forms that these friendly microflora can be delivered so be aware of the different forms probiotics come in.

- Liquid
- Powder
- Pills
- Capsules
- Caplets
- Pearls (coated with either 2 or 3 protective coatings)
- Food/Beverages

There are a few things to consider when shopping for probiotic supplements.

Which strains of bacteria are used?

Probiotics are helpful bacteria that live within the different parts of our small and large intestines and produce any number of beneficial chemicals.  Each strain has different effects on the body and even the number and species type vary from gender and person to person.  The most widely used strains in the probiotic family are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.  Be aware that the number of bacteria listed on the product label can be misleading.  The particular strains of bacteria in the product are also important.  Some strains of bacteria are not as effective as other strains.

How potent is the probiotic you are considering?

Potency should be for the time the bottle is opened not at the time it was manufactured.  Some manufacturers will put the number of bacteria at the time their product is made, not what it will be after it sits on a health food stores shelf for several weeks.  Many probiotics begin to lose their potency after they are shipped from the manufacturer.  The longer they sit on the store shelf, the more bacteria die… and the weaker the product becomes.  Some products need to be refrigerated while others can stay in the cupboard or cabinet.  It depends on the form that you choose to consume.  A great recommendation is to periodically switch the brands and types that you are consuming to maximize the benefits to your body.   The second question to ask is; how is the probiotic product delivered to the intestinal system? In other words, has the product been encapsulated with coatings that will protect the bacteria from stomach acids?  A good probiotic should be able to survive gastric juices and stomach acids.  To be effective, a probiotic must be able to attach easily to the walls of your intestines.

Probiotic supplements should be sold in HDPE (high density polyethylene) plastic or glass containers, which prevent oxygen from affecting the supplement.  As anaerobic substances, probiotics may be damaged by exposure to oxygen. Ideally, the supplement will have been refrigerated, as this prevents harmful exposure to heat and sunlight.  Some newer probiotics can now maintain their stability unrefrigerated for up to two years, but it is still a good idea to refrigerate your supplements.

What form should be considered when purchasing probiotics?

The best form of probiotic supplement is the capsule.  Bacteria in liquid supplements do not remain viable for more than a few weeks.  Powders are exposed to moisture and oxygen every time the container is opened.  There are instances when powders are useful, however, particularly when used for an adult or child who has difficulty swallowing pills.  The container should always be tightly closed and stored in a cool, dry place.  Probiotics in any form should not be mixed with or taken with chlorinated water, as the chlorine will kill the bacteria.

Capsules have a built-in defense against moisture, oxygen, and other harmful contaminants.  Capsules are also the preferred form of probiotics supplements for the same reasons they are the preferred form of other supplements and medicines—they require no measuring, travel well, and are easy to use.  Chewable tablets are often the best choice for children and the elderly.  Vegetarians and vegans will also favor chewable tablets over capsules, whose coating is often made from gelatin, an animal product.

The value of probiotics is becoming more widely accepted by the medical community.  Dr. Michael McCann states: “Probiotics will be to medicine in the twenty-first century what antibiotics and microbiology were in the twentieth.”  Probiotic supplements have been shown to be extremely safe for adults and children.  Constipation and flatulence are the only typical side effect, both of which disappear as the body adjusts to the new bacterial balance, usually after just a few days.  As more research is conducted, it is becoming clear that probiotic supplements are not just an option for a healthy lifestyle, but a necessity.