Better know a prokaryote

It’s obscenely difficult to turn on a television set these days without seeing a woman in a yoga suit talking about the advantages of probiotics in her yogurt. And while all sorts of lofty and beneficial claims are made regarding the consumption of probiotic yogurt, rarely do these advertisements educate the viewer on just what the heck probiotics are. Well, wonder no longer, an explanation is just a short disclaimer away.

Disclaimer: This is the only warning you’re going to get; if you love yogurt, but the thought of creepy crawly things like bacteria makes you squeamish, turn the page now — may I recommend the Arts section?

Yogurt is chock full of bacteria. In fact, it wouldn’t be too inaccurate to say that yogurt is milk that has been spoiled by bacteria. Traditionally, when making yogurt, a species bacterium called Lactobacilli is added to milk. The bacteria then use the lactose sugar naturally present in milk for fermentation, creating lactic acid as a byproduct. The lactic acid curdles the milk, thickening it to make yogurt.

Sometimes the resulting curdled milk is heat treated to kill the remaining bacteria. This results in a product that does not require refrigeration and has a long shelf life, however probiotic yogurt does not go through this step, and therefore contains live bacteria.

To understand why this is good for you it will probably help to stop thinking of yourself as a person, and more as a bacterial neighbourhood. Your entire body — inside and out — is chock full of bacteria, the proportions and species of which are in delicate balance. Upsetting this balance, either through the use of antibiotics or dubious health products, which claim to help with “freshness,” is a tricky game and can result in yeast infections, rashes and diarrhea.

While scientific evidence is not exactly comprehensive it has been suggested that the consumption of probiotic foods can help bolster the body’s population of natural bacteria while pushing out the bad, disease causing bacteria. Clinical observations in cases of diarrhea and bacterial vaginosis have suggested that the consumption of probiotics is indeed beneficial, even if the science behind it is not well understood.