The gastrointestinal tract, or informally referred to as the gut, is the system of organs that begins where food is ingested and ends where it is expelled.

The gastrointestinal tract, or informally referred to as the gut, is the system of organs that begins where food is ingested and ends where it is expelled. In between food gets digested, allowing for nutrients to be absorbed and energy made.

This “in between” in adults starts with the small intestine, which is about 23 feet long, followed by the large intestine, which is only about 5 feet long. That’s almost 28 feet of traveling for every morsel that enters the mouth.

Thus, the lining or mucosa of the GI tract makes up a substantial surface area and the status of this surface is in many aspects crucial for the wellness of an individual. Not only can environmental factors and genetic predisposition influence mucosa and intestinal performance, so can choices made at every meal.

For example, celiac disease is a lifelong autoimmune intestinal disorder found in individuals who are genetically susceptible. Damage to the mucosal surface of the small intestine is caused by an immunologically toxic reaction to the ingestion of gluten and interferes with the absorption of nutrients, and in some cases, water and bile salts. If left untreated, damage to the small bowel can be chronic and life threatening, causing an increased risk of associated disorders - both nutritional and immune related. The only treatment for celiac disease is the lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet. When gluten is removed from the diet, the small intestine starts to heal and overall health improves.

Other foods commonly avoided by individuals suffering from bloating, gas and irritable bowel syndrome include lactose, legumes and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. When these foods are eliminated from the diet, discomforts disappear.

Adding to the diet

Removing foods or food components from the diet is one way to impact GI health. Another is to add foods or food components. Two of the most common additions are probiotics and fiber. Both have application in all types of dairy foods, including cheese, cultured, fluid and frozen.

According to the Innova Database, when looking at data for all new value-added dairy product launches - of which there were about 2,040 during the 52-week period from July 2008 through June 2009 - for the top-15 countries, the number-one value-added claim was digestive/gut health. In fact, 34.8% of value-added dairy introductions had this claim. The next nine most common claims together totaled only 20.8%, or 14 percentage points lower than digestive/gut health. Keep in mind, these percents are only for all value-added dairy introductions during this time period -  not all dairy introductions, which were in excess of 11,000.

The United States was the leader for digestive/gut health claims among the top 15 countries that introduced value-added dairy products, with almost 25% of all new value-added dairy foods carrying a digestive/gut health claim coming from the States. Of all health claims made on U.S. value-added dairy foods, 30% carried a digestive/gut health claim.

Probiotics and prebiotics

When probiotics (live microorganisms, which when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host) are consumed, they come in contact with the GI tract where they perform various functions. Evidence suggests that modulation of intestinal microbiota may have a beneficial clinical effect on certain conditions, as a healthy ecology of GI microflora strengthens the digestive system by supporting beneficial components of the microbiota and suppressing adverse ones. Research has shown that the immune system can be targeted through different receptors in the mucosa and a number of physiological effects can be initiated through stimulation of the mucosa.

It is believed that a weak GI system is a factor contributing to the increasing incidence of certain diseases based on dysfunction of the immune system, such as type-one diabetes and allergies. Thus, food and beverages enhanced with probiotics are increasingly being consumed to promote and maintain an optimum balance of microorganisms in the GI tract, something that in ancient times was achieved through consumption of raw and minimally processed foods where live and active bacteria thrived.

Recent research confirms that the concept of probiotics is resonating with Americans. The 2009 Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey from Washington, D.C.-based International Food Information Council asked consumers, on an aided basis, whether they are aware of certain food components, their corresponding food sources and their associated health benefits. Of the 72% of consumers aware of the relationship of probiotics and a healthy digestive system, 38% said they are already consuming probiotics for this reason, while 47% are likely or somewhat likely to consume. Of the 71% aware of how probiotics maintain a healthy immune system, 41% said they are already consuming probiotics for this reason, while 42% are likely or somewhat likely to consume.

Probiotics ferment various fibers, many of which are prebiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible (by the host) food ingredients that have a beneficial effect through their selective metabolism in the intestinal tract. Prebiotics provide nourishment to normal, colonizing beneficial bacteria, yet prebiotics are non-viable food components/ingredients themselves.

The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics identifies three criteria required for a prebiotic effect: resistance of the prebiotic to degradation by stomach acid, mammalian enzymes or hydrolysis; fermentation (breakdown, metabolism) of the prebiotic by intestinal microbes; and selective stimulation of the growth and/or activity of beneficial microorganisms in the gut. The latter is critical. To be selectively fermented, only a small number of beneficial bacteria should be able to ferment the prebiotic, not a large number of microbes with ill-defined health effects. The GI benefit should be able to be qualified and quantified.

Non-prebiotic fibers, when consumed in adequate amounts, also provide numerous health benefits including improved GI health. For instance, a high-fiber diet prevents constipation, hemorrhoids and diverticulosis.

Fiber consumption is also linked to the prevention of some cancers, in particular colon and breast. Fiber has been shown to help lower blood sugar to better manage diabetes. Further, certain fibers have been shown to lower lipoprotein cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and total cholesterol from the bloodstream, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease.

In the IFIC survey, 88% of consumers said they were aware of the relationship of fiber for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Of this aware group, 56% said that they are already consuming fiber for this reason, while 38% are likely or somewhat likely to consume fiber. Specifically with prebiotic fiber, 60% said they were aware of the relationship of prebiotic fiber and maintaining a healthy digestive system, with 45% already consuming prebiotics for this reason, while 47% are likely or somewhat likely to consume prebiotics.

In general, 81% of those surveyed somewhat or strongly agree that foods and beverages can improve digestive health. This is driving many dairy processors to develop products that incorporate probiotics or fiber, or both. The opportunities are infinite.

Innovations here and abroad

Dairies around the world are adding probiotics and fiber to dairy foods, and promoting their digestive health benefits on packages.

The Dannon Co. Inc., White Plains, N.Y., has expanded its Activia brand with new Activia Fiber. Activia Fiber delivers 3-grams fiber in every 4-ounce serving. According to the ingredient statement, the fiber sources are inulin, red wheat bran and rolled oats. All Activia products contain the company’s proprietary probiotic culture: Bifidus Regularis.

Wells’ Dairy, LeMars, Iowa, recently introduced a line of frozen yogurt novelties under the Aspen and Sedona sub-brands. Both are touted as being a good source fiber and containing probiotics that “may help support immune and digestive health.” The fiber comes from a number of sources, including inulin, polydextrose and various gums, and is delivered through both the frozen yogurt and the granola.

New SimplyWell pudding from Kozy Shack, Hicksville, N.Y., delivers 3-grams prebiotic fiber in the form of inulin in every 4-ounce cup. On front package panels the company flags the fact that prebiotic fiber helps promote and maintain digestive health.

Since this summer, there now is an organic ice cream sandwich for those who are on a gluten-free diet. Julie’s Organic superpremium vanilla ice cream, which is made in Eugene, Ore., and Glutenfreeda Foods Inc, Glenwood Springs, Colo., developed a rice-based cookie that makes up the new Julie’s Gluten Free Ice Cream Sandwich. Also under the Julie’s brand is new Organic Strawberry Yogurt Bars, which are low in fat, contain only 120 calories per frozen yogurt bar and are formulated with prebiotic fiber and six probiotics, according to the company.

In India, Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation introduces Amul ProLife Probiotic Ice Cream, which is enriched with live beneficial cultures to promote overall well being and health. The product is claimed to improve immunity and digestion, prevent gut infection and manage traveler’s diarrhea.

Mexico’s Industrías Lactel introduces Bioplus Nature Lactel Alimento Lácteo Fermentado, a fermented lactic drink enriched with probiotics and dietary fiber. The product is fat free, low in calories and is claimed to improve the digestive system.

Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group in China has designed a powerhouse dairy beverage for kids. New Yili Q Star Children Growing Up Yogurt Drink for Bone Health is specially formulated for aiding growth and development of children. It contains colostrum, prebiotics and organic milk. According to the manufacturer, colostrum helps the body absorb more calcium and strengthen bones. Organic milk is natural and free from pollutants. Prebiotics are good for the digestive system and strengthen the immune system.

As previously stated, innovations are unlimited. 

Donna Berry is the product development editor of Dairy Foods. She can be reached at 312/656-6453 or

Sidebar: Yogurt for Digestive Health

The Yoplait yogurt brand sheds new light on digestive health by helping yogurt lovers regulate their gastrointestinal system without compromising caloric intake or taste. New YoPlus Light comes in three flavors: Honey Vanilla, Key Lime and Strawberry Banana. With just 70 calories per cup, YoPlus Light promises to keep gut health on track.

Similar to YoPlus yogurts already available in supermarkets nationwide, YoPlus Light contains a special blend of probiotic cultures and a natural dietary fiber, but now with 36% fewer calories. Research shows that the combination of special cultures and fiber in YoPlus helps support gut health and can help consumers regulate their digestive health when eaten regularly. All YoPlus yogurts contain the probiotic Bifidobacterium lactis Bb-12

“Consuming probiotics regularly, like those in YoPlus Light, is a natural way to help regulate the digestive tract,” says Tamara Schryver, nutrition scientist at the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, Minneapolis. “The fiber in each cup helps to enhance the role of probiotics by offering additional digestive health benefits.”

The company also recently launched Yoplait Fiber One 50-calorie yogurt. With most Americans falling short of getting at least 25 grams of fiber a day, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine, Yoplait Fiber One comes to the rescue. Each cup of 50-calorie Fiber One yogurt provides an excellent source of fiber (5 grams) - 20% of the recommended Daily Value - and no fat. A single serving is also a good source of calcium as well as vitamins A and D.

Sidebar: Probiotics Reduce Cold and Flu Symptoms

There’s a growing trend for parents of young children to embrace preventative measures for improving their child’s immune system and ward off illness. Many are also shying away from medicines and seeking out homeopathic and all-natural remedies for treating illnesses. An increasingly attractive choice is probiotic-enhanced dairy foods.

A recent study entitled “Probiotic Effects on Cold and Influenza-Like Symptom Incidence and Duration in Children,” was published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Elk Grove Village, Ill., in its peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics (August 2009.) The research, sponsored by Danisco, New Century, Kan., demonstrates the benefits of the company’s proprietary probiotic combination of Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM and Bifidobacterium lactis Bi-07 in maintaining immune health in children.

The six-month study involved 326 children, aged 3- to 5-years old, who were given supplements twice a day. One group received a single strain of L. acidophilus NCFM. Another group received a combination of L. acidophilus NCFM and B. lactis Bi-07, while the final group received a placebo. When compared to the placebo group, the groups that received the single and combination probiotic supplements reduced their fever incidence by 53% and 72.7%, respectively. Their coughing was reduced by 41.4% and 62.1% and their runny noses were lessened by 28.2% and 58.5%. The duration and severity of cold and flu symptoms were also significantly reduced in the children receiving the probiotics. Because of their enhanced natural defences, these children had less need for prescription antibiotics and missed fewer days of childcare.

In the study, supplements were used to ensure controlled delivery without any influences from external factors (i.e., other nutrients) had the probiotics been delivered via a food application. However, dairy foods have been identified as an ideal delivery vehicle for these probiotics, especially for products geared towards children, as dairy contains an array of nutrients growing body’s crave.