Yogurt's surprising health benefit.

Yogurt lovers, rejoice! Not only does this nutrient-packed snack help keep your bones strong, new research shows it may also protect against gum disease. Researchers from Japan recently analyzed dietary intakes from nearly 1,000 adults and found those who consumed the highest levels of dairy-specifically yogurt and yogurt-type drinks-had the healthiest gums.

Their report, published earlier this year in the Journal of Periodontology, credits probiotics (a.k.a. "good bacteria") as one possible champion of gum health. Probiotics are live active cultures used to ferment foods, such as yogurt and kefir (fermented milk), and studies suggest that they may improve digestion and boost immunity too. As for gum health, it's not yet clear how much yogurt (or other fermented dairy foods) one needs to consume to reap the benefits, says Yoshihiro Shimazaki, D.D.S., Ph.D., of Kyushu University, the study's lead author.

What is clear, though, is that periodontal disease affects more than one in three American adults. Harmful bacteria accumulate on teeth (as plaque) and eventually harden into tartar, which causes gum tissue to become inflamed. Experts believe that probiotics may help to counter growth of the "unfriendly" bacteria in the mouth.

Maintaining good oral health isn't just an issue of aesthetics. Left unchecked, gum disease may elevate a person's risk for heart attack and stroke, Shimazaki explains. One theory is that bacteria in the mouth infiltrate the bloodstream, causing inflammation in the arteries, which increases risk for heart disease.

Bottom line: Probiotic-rich yogurt may keep your gums-and therefore your heart-healthy. So raise that yogurt smoothie in a toast to good health.

July/August 2008