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Probiotics: Health Or Hype?

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Next time you head to the grocery store, take a look around. Chances are you'll be surrounded by products infused with probiotics, friendly bacteria that aid in digestion.

Once reserved for the refrigerated section, probiotics are now popping up in everything from candy to cosmetics. Do these products harness real health benefits, or are they simply hype? CBS 2's Mary Kay Kleist reports.

Hollis Blume and her children have a sweet spot for chocolate.

"Every day after school, I'll give the kids a chocolate bar," said Blume.

But this chocolate bar is different. It's one of many new products like fortified coffee, snacks and even pizza crusts that contain probiotics.

"People are looking for food that's fuel, not something that's just stored in their stomach," said Justin Frierson, Naked Pizza general manager.

Experts say probiotics can decrease the incidence of colds, allergies and eczema. They can also help you lose weight and decrease urinary tract infections in women. The global market for probiotics is expected to reach more than 32 billion dollars by 2014, and that's why more products are adding the good bacteria. There are literally trillions of strains of probiotics some of which are becoming more common in beauty products like lotions, skin creams and cosmetics. They're also added to dental products like mints, gums and toothpaste.

"This prevents gum disease and cavities. The side effect is that it freshens the breath and it whitens teeth," Mark Cannon, DDS, pediatric dentist at Lurie Children's Hospital.

Dr. Cannon says another strain of bacteria found in this gum can prevent sore throats and ear infections. "Last year, there was a thousand publications in the medical literature about probiotics and the vast, vast majority of these publications show a health benefit," said Dr. Cannon.

So, how do you know which products have proven benefits? "Look for products that have credible scientific research to back up their claims," said Erin Palinski-Wade/registered dietitian. For things like pizza crust and coffee, that means making sure the strains are heat resistant.

Also, look for labels that list CFU's. "CFU's stand for colony forming units, and it's basically an estimate of the amount of viable bacteria cells in a product or supplement." Make sure there are enough CFU's to deliver actual health benefits. Research indicates we need at least 3 billion each day.

Probiotics are generally considered safe, and side effects are very rare. In some cases, doctors are even recommending probiotics to prevent side effects in patients taking antibiotics.

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