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Probiotics for kids: Worth it?

Consumer Reports News: May 24, 2011 05:01 PM

Baffled by the bewildering array of foods and drinks that prominently feature probiotics on the label? Wonder if you should be giving these to your baby or young child? You’re not alone.

Food marketers promote probiotics, those beneficial bacteria that live in the intestines, where they can ease digestive woes and possibly strengthen immune systems, in everything from infant formula to yogurts specifically targeted to children.

“We’re constantly being bombarded by magazines and TV,” said Dan Thomas, M.D., the lead author on a clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP, on probiotics and prebiotics in pediatrics. “We wrote this to tell pediatricians what is known. Pediatricians are being bombarded by the industry. As a medical community, there’s a lot of responsibility now these products are out there.”

He added that “the products in general are safe, and may have some health benefits in otherwise healthy children. Check with your pediatrician.”

At this point, the science isn’t definitive. Some studies have found that probiotics may benefit children who have colic or other issues, while being modestly effective for treating antibiotic-related diarrhea or acute viral gastroenteritis. There are also safety concerns with children who have serious health issues, like a compromised immune system.

“The studies in foods and dietary supplements are evolving,” said Mary Ellen Sanders, a microbiologist who focuses on probiotics. “They’re safe for the general population. While they are not essential, the benefits are clear for some consumers. But for those without a clear need, any extra cost might not be worth it.”

Parents should also realize that claims for a specific probiotic in a specific food product don’t necessarily apply to other products.

“Everyone’s trying a different bacteria,” said David Seres, M.D., director of medical nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center.

The bottom line, at least for now, is that giving your healthy child foods with probiotics could offer some benefits.

“With a healthy child, go for it,” said Dr. Thomas. “Whether you’re creating a biological difference, we don’t know. Hopefully we’ll get to a point when we can say this is beneficial.”

See our buying advice and Ratings for a wide range of products for babies and kids including buying advice for baby formula.

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Merri Rosenberg


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