Active cultures responsible for yogurt's popularity


Is your yogurt alive? Is it active? Is it cultured? The National Yogurt Association wants you to know.

The trade organization has started looking at the liveliness of yogurt samples sent in by manufacturers. If a cup of yogurt runneth over with culture, that is, if it has at least 10 million organisms per gram at time of consumption, then the association is giving the product permission to sport the letters of approval " l. a. c." on the label.

That stands for "live active cultures." So far, Dannon, Yoplait and Haagen-Dazs yogurts have qualified or "lettered." The association, a non-profit trade organization based in McLean, Va., says it anticipates more yogurt products, fresh and frozen, will earn letters of approval as more manufacturers send in samples.

I found this pro-bacteria stand fascinating. Especially nowadays, when there is a call to make some foods, like hamburgers and fish, more dead. Suggestions have been made to put them through some kind of procedure that would guarantee that when the smoke clears, no life form is left standing.

In light of this, I would have bet a package of tortillas in tamper-resistant packaging that if you took a poll and asked people whether they wanted their eats "free" or "full" of organisms, most folks would have picked the organism-free option.

I would have been wrong.

A poll commissioned by the yogurt association found that half of yogurt consumers wanted live, active cultures in their cups.

The pollsters found an even stronger yearning among the yogurt-eating public for some way to recognize live, active cultures. Seventy five percent of those polled said that is what they wanted.

And that, Leslie Sarasin, president of the yogurt trade group, was why the "l. a. c." labeling program began this year.

In recent conversations with Sarasin and other yogurt eaters, I found they all held two strong beliefs.

First, they do not believe all bacteria are equal. They submit that there are good bacteria, the kinds, for instance, that live in your innards and help you digest that big piece of moose meat you ate for supper. And then there are bad bacteria, the kinds that grow on the hollandaise sauce when you leave it in the sun for a few days. That stuff can make you sick.

Yogurt eaters aren't the only ones who believe this -- some scientists do as well. I remember hearing something similar about good and bad bacteria in high school science class. But that was years ago and I have never been adept at distinguishing friendly from unfriendly bacteria. For a time, I was even afraid to eat yogurt. It looked like sun-treated hollandaise. But then the yogurt makers started tossing strawberry jam in their products and won me over.

Anyway, the yogurt eaters I talked to not only knew about the active cultures, they seemed to know them personally. They talked Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus the way certain Virginians talk about Thomas Jefferson. Namely, like the aforementioned was gonna walk in and say hello any minute. "Lacto" and "Strepto" are the two organisms that convert pasteurized milk to yogurt during fermentation. They are living, at least in yogurts that haven't been cooked after fermentation. Thomas Jefferson, however, is officially dead, at least in 49 states.

The yogurt eaters also mentioned a third culture, Lactobacillus acidophilus. This one, it seems to me, is the celebrity culture of yogurt. It appears in some yogurts, but not all, and only after people go through a lot of trouble to make conditions just to its liking.

The other tenet of the yogurt eaters belief system was that swallowing live, active cultures is good for you.

Sarasin said yogurt is a good source of protein and calcium. She said people who have trouble digesting milk often do not have trouble digesting yogurt, especially if the yogurt meets the new threshold of live, active cultures.

And she said researchers were studying what role, if any, yogurt plays in aiding digestion, fighting gastrointestinal infections and boosting the body's immune system.

She did not say if you eat enough live, active cultures your colon will be healthier, happier and dance the light fandango. Other yogurt eaters told me this, in testimony too personal and too intestinal to print in a family newspaper.

So remember, when you see the new "l. a. c." on a cup of yogurt, it means there is a bacterial party going on in there. One more tip: do not leave your yogurt in sun.

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