Good Germs

I am what is known as a germaphobe. (See also: obsessive-compulsive disorder.) During cold and flu season, I never venture out without my purse-sized hand sanitizer. Sick friends know to bow out of dinner if I'm hosting, and I have been known to disinfect seatbelts and radio knobs after a cold-ridden colleague rides in my car. The last time my boyfriend had the stomach flu, I instituted a quarantine so rigorous that he was banned from my bed and bathroom until all surfaces and linens could be bleach-cleaned.

Given my anti-germ proclivities, what on Earth could make me willingly ingest 10 billion living bacteria every single day? The promise of a souped-up immune system.

That, and a bar of chocolate.

I'd never heard of probiotics until two months ago, when a sample box of Attune Food's wellness bars arrived on my doorstep. (Full disclosure: they sent them free of charge, a common and ethical way of introducing members of the media to a new product.) As I read through the literature, I learned that probiotics exist naturally in foods like blue cheese, yogurt, and tofu, and they've been around in supplement form for years. But now companies from Dannon (Activia yogurt) to Kashi (Vive cereal) to Attune are adding them to foods. Here's why: preliminary research suggests that these friendly bacteria may be able to prevent cancer, tooth decay, and allergies; lower blood pressure and cholesterol; reduce the uncomfortable effects of lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); and keep a healthy digestive tract working smoothly.

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I have to admit, I was intrigued. Who hasn't had the occasional upset stomach after an orgy of rich foods and untold bottles of wine? And, okay, I'll admit it -- I had visions of becoming a sort of Anti-Germ Superwoman, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and ride Muni in December without gloves and a gas mask. So I started snooping around to learn more.

To understand how probiotics work, we have to talk about something not normally considered polite food blog conversation: the colon. Our intestines are full of bacteria -- 100 trillion, to be exact -- that help us digest fiber, absorb nutrients from food, and eliminate what we don't need. They also play a significant role in our immune system, killing off harmful bacteria. When these gut flora get out of balance -- usually a result of stress, illness, antibiotics, or alcohol -- disaster can ensue.

Probiotics help reinstate that balance by replenishing our intestines with good bacteria. They are often taken hand in hand with prebiotics, a kind of fiber that feeds the good bacteria while the colony repopulates itself.

In order to help you, foods containing probiotics have to meet three requirements:
1. The probiotics have to be alive when you ingest them.
2. They have to survive the digestive process and reach your intestines.
3. They have to be in sufficient quantities to have an effect.

There are several different strains of probiotics but all of them have unpronounceable names. Two of the most popular are lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. Different strains do different things, and the scientific jury is still out on their overall potential. Some researchers have seen promising results on a number of fronts from preventing allergies in children to lowering blood pressure, while others claim that probiotics are still not well understood. But the one thing nearly everyone seems to agree on is that they can help keep your digestive tract functioning without any snafus.

The small print that accompanied Attune's package indicated that I should eat one bar every day for 14 days to judge the full effect. It also stated that "some people may notice minor intestinal discomfort for the first few days." Hmm. One woman's minor intestinal discomfort could be another woman's oh-dear-God-why-me? So I emailed the company and asked them to be more specific. Their reply? Possible bloating and/or gas. I admit that I stared at that box of chocolate bars for a few days. I felt like a lab rat, but the potential benefits -- fewer colds! -- eventually outweighed any worries of unwelcome flatulence.

I unwrapped a Cool Mint Chocolate bar and took a bite. CRUNCH. The first thing I noticed was that it was delicious. I'd expected it to taste like something that was good for me -- mealy, slimy, or chewy all came to mind. But this was creamy chocolate bliss over crisp rice. A few days was all it took to hook me. I felt better -- no intestinal discomfort at all -- and I've been eating them ever since. I've also conducted a small and wholly unscientific focus group on my own. Three friends with ailments that veer from the serious (IBS) to the annoying (occasional constipation) to the mundane (allergies) have tried them. It's not cold season yet, so I can't tell you if they'll keep us healthy or not, but three out of four of us are still eating them -- "germs" and all.

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Note: This post should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice.

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