Probiotics, live microbial food supplements that beneficially affect the host by improving its intestinal microbial balance, are quickly gaining interest as functional foods in the current era of self-care and complementary medicine. Microbes have been used for years in food and alcoholic fermentations and relatively recently have undergone scientific scrutiny to examine their purported health benefits. Some of the claims for which research supports a beneficial effect of probiotic consumption include: improving intestinal tract health, enhancing the immune system, synthesizing and enhancing the bioavailability of nutrients, reducing symptoms of lactose intolerance, decreasing the prevalence of allergy in susceptible individuals, and reducing risk of certain cancers. The mechanisms by which probiotics exert their effects are largely unknown, but may involve modifying gut pH, antagonizing pathogens through production of antimicrobial and antibacterial compounds, competing for pathogen binding and receptor sites as well as for available nutrients and growth factors, stimulating immunomodulatory cells, and producing lactase. Selection criteria, efficacy, food and supplement sources and safety issues around probiotics are reviewed. Nutrition professionals can provide a tremendous service by helping clients overcome negative perceptions of all bacteria and, when appropriate, by developing individualized dietary plans to take advantage of the benefits probiotics may confer.