A report last month in Nature revealed new research suggesting that gut bacteria might play a much more prominent role in health and obesity than previously suspected. This study coincides with a proliferation of research on the benefits of probiotic bacteria.

With bacteria-related illnesses like Clostridium difficile on the rise, consumers are becoming more aware of the role that gut bacteria play in their health. A recent study in Nature suggests that obese people have fewer strains of probiotic bacteria in their guts than average-weight people.

St. Louis’ Washington University School of Medicine has also unveiled new research suggesting that carbohydrate digestion is specifically linked to probiotic yogurts. In the study, consumption of yogurt did not change the amount of bacteria in subjects’ guts, but rather it seemed to spur activity in the already-present bacteria, making the breakdown of carbohydrates more efficient.

In addition to combating harmful bacteria and aiding in digestion, probiotic bacteria may even affect mood and behavior.

In a recent interview on NPR’s “Science Friday,” scientist John Cryan discussed his research in mice, which shows a strong correlation between the presence of some probiotic strains in the gut and stress levels in the brain — a correlation that approximates the effects of valium. While the research is still in its early phases, Cryan hints at seeing great opportunities for food companies to capitalize on the potentially healthful effects of certain bacteria. From that interview:

Cryan: There was one [study on humans] out of France in the British Journal of Nutrition a few months ago, which was quite encouraging, which had a mixture of two probiotics, potential probiotics together, which show that they could affect stress, and it could affect mood in a positive sense.

Host Ira Flatow: Boy, the drug companies don’t want to hear this.

Cryan: Drug companies, I don’t know. But maybe the food companies do.

Though the Food and Drug Administration has been cracking down on front-of-package health claims, consumers seeking out probiotic-enriched products will already know what they’re looking for and why.

As the results of these most recent studies are scrutinized, food companies may find that incorporating probiotic bacteria into already healthy foods gives them an opportunity to provide both nourishment and overall wellness to consumers seeking more from their food.