Ask the Experts: In Praise of Yogurt

Eating yogurt may not only keep you from catching the common cold, it may also help prevent cancer and lower your cholesterol.

I love yogurt, but I'm lactose intolerant. What are the potential health benefits of eating yogurt with live and active cultures? And is it true that people who are lactose intolerant may find them easier to digest?

It's the good bacteria--such as lactobacillus bulgaricus, streptococcus thermophilus, lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidus--that convert pasteurized milk to yogurt during fermentation. These live and active cultures also break down lactose, the sugar in milk, which allows lactose-intolerant individuals to eat yogurt without side effects like abdominal cramping, bloating and diarrhea.

Scientists have long studied the positive impact of yogurt's live and active cultures on gastrointestinal infections, the immune system, cancer and osteoporosis. In addition to helping relieve diarrhea and other digestion-related distress, live cultures have been found to prevent urinary tract infections. And eating yogurt may not only keep you from catching the common cold, it may also help prevent cancer and lower your cholesterol.

Why yogurt's live cultures augment health is still mostly a mystery, but some scientists speculate that they stimulate immune-enhancing cells, as well as the production of antimicrobial and antibacterial agents that fight disease-causing microorganisms.

Some food processing methods, like heating yogurt to prolong shelf life and lessen its naturally tart flavor, can destroy the cultures. So check the nutrition labels to make sure you're getting live and active cultures. You can also look for the National Yogurt Association's "Live & Active Cultures" seal, an indication that refrigerated products contain at least 100 million cultures per gram, and frozen products have 10 million cultures per gram.

Does the intensity of a fruit's flavor have a bearing on how nutritious it is? I wonder this every time I eat an apple or orange that's not very flavorful.

The taste of a particular fruit reflects a variety of things: how it's grown, what conditions it's grown in, how it's fertilized, when it's been harvested (too soon or too late), how ripe it is, and even the organic or artificial ingredients often added to preserve or enhance the fruit's taste, like sulfur dioxide.

As a general rule, a dull-tasting apple is as nutritious as a sweet one. Color, texture and fluid content determine nutrition density in fruits more than taste does. But if that lackluster taste is a sign the fruit is damaged or well past its prime, you may not be getting the most nutritional bang for your buck.

When selecting fruit, look for freshness and choose the ones with the deepest color. Avoid those that show signs of deterioration such as soft spots, discolored areas or have bruises and dings, which can expose the meat of the fruit to oxidation, causing loss of nutrients.

To get the full nutritional benefit, keep it covered. The majority of a fruit's vitamins, phytochemicals and antioxidants are concentrated in the skin or outer layers. The skin of an apple, for instance, is packed with the antioxidant quercitin, found to help cut cancer cell production by as much as 43 percent, and citrus peels contain natural cholesterol, cancer and inflammation-lowering flavones.

And keep in mind, while some deeper-colored, more intense-flavored exotic fruits such as kiwi or guava may be a bit more nutritious, that's no reason to shun the less-glamorous, easier-to-come-by varieties, which still pack a healthy punch. The truth is, all fruits are excellent sources of nutrients whether they give the taste buds a zing, or not.

I see the artificial sweetener Splenda offered more and more in restaurants and supermarkets and have heard that more products will be using it as a sweetener. Is it true that it contains zero calories, and is it safe long term?

Splenda, the trade name for sucralose, is a synthetic compound derived from sugar that's considered calorie-free because it's poorly absorbed by the small intestine and eliminated from the body unchanged. And while Splenda contains an insignificant amount of sugar calories in the form of dextrose and/or maltodextrin, it still meets the national standards for no-calorie sweeteners.

Also, sucralose, which combines two molecules of sugar and three of chlorine, is heat stable and can be used as a sweetener in baked goods.

Before the Food and Drug Administration approved Splenda in April 1998, it was tested in nearly 100 studies by groups including the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, the Health Protection Branch of Health and Welfare Canada, Australia's National Food Authority, as well as the FDA. These groups found it to be safe and pose no carcinogenic, reproductive or neurological risk to human beings. More than 4,000 food products in more than 80 countries are sweetened with Splenda.

But the jury is still out on the long-term effects of Splenda. So, as with any artificial sweetener, it's best to practice moderation. A Splenda packet in your morning coffee or Splenda-sweetened diet soda with lunch a few days a week as part of an otherwise healthy diet shouldn't be a problem.

However, using it as an excuse to overload on sweets will result in a nutrient-poor diet. Also, if you're prone to food allergies and intolerances that cause side effects such as headaches, gastrointestinal distress, nervousness or diarrhea, you may want to avoid artificial sweeteners as a rule.

Sports nutritionist Lisa Dorfman is a registered dietitian, licensed mental health counselor, and adjunct professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Sciences at the University of Miami. She's author of The Tropical Diet and The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide, available on her Web site,

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