Children in daycare who consumed the drink DanActive experienced a reduction in the incidence of common ailments that included sinusitis, flu, diarrhea, and ear infections. DanActive is a yogurt drink that is designed to provide probiotic bacteria as part of a healthy diet.

Contrary to popular perception, not all bacteria are bad for us. In fact, not only are some beneficial to our health, but they are necessary for our very survival. There are even experts who believe that the state of our health is directly dependent upon the bacterial makeup of our intestines, and consumption of certain “friendly,” or probiotic bacteria, contributes to our gastrointestinal (GI) health.

Because of these health benefits, probiotic foods are increasing in popularity in the United States, though they have been popular for some time in other countries, especially in Europe. In these countries, studies have shown that probiotics do in fact have positive health benefits in children, including fewer days missed due to infection. These findings, however, were done under controlled conditions that do not reflect normal, everyday life.

To better gauge the effects of probiotics outside the laboratory setting, researchers in the U.S. wanted to observe any health benefits in children during the regular days, without the intrusion of scientific investigators. In other words, they were interested in the effects, if any, of food consumption rather than what would be seen if the probiotics were administered as medication. Parents could then give the food to their children without the need of a prescription or medical oversight.

In order to accomplish this, scientists enrolled over 630 children between the ages of 3 and 6 years who attended school on a regular basis. Parents were asked to give the kids a fruit-flavored yogurt drink, some of which were supplemented with probiotic bacteria (L. casei DN-114 001), while others contained no bacteria (placebo). Parents kept daily journal entries regarding their children’s health and the quantity of yogurt that they consumed. Neither the children, parents, or study coordinators knew which drinks had probiotics and which did not (double-blind).

What they observed was that children who consumed the probiotic yogurt experienced a 19% reduction in some of the more common infections that affect children, including 24% fewer GI problems (diarrhea, vomiting) and 18% fewer respiratory infections (ear, sinusitis, strep). However, there was not an observed reduction in the number of school days that were missed, which would be one of the long term goals of probiotic food supplementation.

The study, which was published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is the largest probiotic clinical trial thus far conducted in the United States, and not only points to the growing significance of probiotic foods, but also may open the door for more studies looking at the bacteria.

Probiotic foods have been consumed throughout the world for many years, though they are just beginning to gain widespread acceptance in this country, where they are available in certain foods as well as in nutritional supplements. While in many instances they are harmless, you should consult with your physician before consuming or giving them to your children outside of your/their regular dietary regimen.

For more information about probiotic bacteria, visit the website for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).