Mumbai: Probiotic products (which contain beneficial gut microbes) are a Rs 20.6 million industry in India and experts are exploring its value as an alternative medicine. Manjari Bhatnagar tells you all you need to know.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live micro-organisms that are good for health. Curd has already gained its share of goodwill in this regard but temph (derived from soyabean), dark chocolate, cheese and algae (used in Chinese and Japanese food) are also said to be effective sources to fight diseases such as viral infections and diarrhoea.

Probiotic products are believed to contain 'good' strains of live gut bacteria which have a beneficial effect on a person's metabolism and also aid weight loss. Nearly 400 strains of probiotics are being researched to find out if they can be used as alternatives to antibiotics.

Why are probiotics in the news?

Five years after probiotic foods made their way into India, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has taken up an extensive research programme to ascertain if these 'good bugs' can be used to combat several diseases in women and children. The fast growing industry has attracted attention and internationally, probiotics are quite the hit.

Are these really healthy?

These have a long list of health benefits. Some international studies have found positive results in the treatment of vaginal yeast infections, Urinary Tract Infections (UTI), intestinal infections and it also benefits the colon and boosts the immune function and blood pressure and can help the treatment of cholesterol.

Recent studies at the University College Cork in Ireland discovered that two probiotics prepared in their lab were as good as the best antibiotics available in the market to cure infections in animals. The University Hospital in Sweden reported that a certain kind of bacteria was as effective as an antiseptic in preventing patients on ventilators from developing pneumonia.

Says nutritionist Anjali Peswani, "Our urban lifestyle includes eating a lot of processed food which affects our digestive health. Probiotics enhance the digestive function and release enzymes. This strengthens the gut and prevents ailments such as constipation".

However, a word of caution: in India, probiotics are sold as dietary supplements and do not undergo the testing and approval processes that medicines do. Go with our gut reaction, we say!