I take the GoodBelly 12-day challenge

a dairy-free vegan probiotic option

A few weeks ago I received some coupons from GoodBelly, maker of probiotic juice drinks.  And like any good nutrition journalist, I went out and used those coupons so I could try this novel vegan probiotic delivery beverage.  I’ve been aware of GoodBelly for awhile, but never was tempted to try it for some reason.  Maybe it sounded too health foodie.  I’m used to thinking of probiotics as something you find in a dairy food like yogurt, so how was it going to work in a juice?  With that in mind, I started the recommended 12 day Challenge, which guarantees you’ll love it or it’s free.

Probiotics are a Hot Topic in nutrition these days.  The good news is people are aware that intestinal bacteria aren’t simply yucky alien beings.  The bad news is that, despite all the hype about the wonderfulness of probiotics, we don’t really have all that much concrete evidence that they perform miracles.  Yet food and supplement companies throw around claims like “immune support” or “immune boosting” and fund studies that attempt to showcase some beneficial probiotic effect to prove that they make you healthier.

The first problem with the probiotic PR is that there are literally infinite numbers of bacteria.  According to one estimate, 5 million trillion trillion!  Obviously they can’t all fit in one human gut, let alone survive or co-exist.  So the number that would potentially live in a human is lower.  Nevertheless, it’s a big number.  Here’s one thing we do know about probiotics: when it comes to any beneficial effect (or adverse effect, for that matter), the species and strain matter.  Just saying “lactobacillus” isn’t terribly meaningful, since there are many different types and strains.  For example, Lactobacillus casei strain DN-114 001 appears to be helpful for infant diarrhea; other L casei strains, not necessarily so.  But if you don’t know that, and you just think “Lactobacillus = Healthy”, you might buy a product with a different strain of lactobacillus that doesn’t help your particular problem.

GoodBelly contains Lactobacillus plantarum 299v, which is patented.  Which brings up another probiotic issue: bacteria are pretty widespread in the world.  Trying to position your food product as uniquely healthy and worth the money, when it just contains garden-variety probiotics, isn’t very exciting.  So suppliers try to discover specific strains of bacteria, document some benefit or other, slap a patent on it and tout their product as special.  GoodBelly has a list of studies supporting L plantarum 299v.  In general the studies show that the bacteria survives in the gut, had some anti-microbial and other beneficial effects, notably in lab or rat experiments.

But do probiotics boost our immune system, prevent disease and make us live longer?  Back when the yoghurt market was young, several ad campaigns, including this one from Dannon, used the concept of longevity in certain yogurt-eating cultures.  Unfortunately, there’s no actual research showing that it’s the yogurt that makes people live longer.  Such research would take decades, and even then how would any study sort out all the random effects of genetics, diet and lifestyle in a group of human subjects in order to prove yoghurt boosted immunity or prevented disease.

All we’ve got to go on is how a particular probiotic product affects us individually.  If you’re looking for some specific short-term benefit, like less boating or intestinal upset, and a particular product seems to help, then good for you.  Some other people might not experience the same effects from that product.  If you’re looking for something more vague, like better immunity, you may or may not experience that.  How will you know?

What did I think of GoodBelly?  Well, I liked the Mango flavor best.  Other than that, I didn’t experience any remarkable effects, but then I already eat plenty of probiotic-containing yoghurt.  Maybe my 12 Day Challenge was complicated by competing bacteria.  Who knows?  But it would be an option for vegans or people allergic to dairy products.  And the particular L plantarum 299v strain might turn out to be helpful for certain people.  The only way to know is to try it.

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