Your gut is teeming with organisms – about 100 trillion or three pounds of tiny bacteria. In fact, you have more bacteria in your gut than you do cells in your body. What’s more, many of these bacteria have health benefits. Bacteria that help the host are referred to as “probiotic” because they are living organisms that confer benefits, in this case, you. Probiotic literally means “for life.”
One way to enjoy these benefits is to eat fermented foods. Another way is to take one of the many probiotic supplements you buy at a health food store. Probiotic supplements are growing in popularity because folks want the benefits that probiotics offer but don’t always want to eat fermented foods. Can you get equivalent benefits by taking a probiotic supplement or are probiotic food sources better?
What Are Fermented Foods?
Fermented foods have been around for centuries. In fact, foods that contain natural probiotics due to fermentation can be traced back as far as 10,000 years ago, although the term probiotic was only adopted about 35 years ago. Fermented foods you’re most familiar with today are fermented dairy products like yogurt. However, kefir, a fermented form of milk, is also growing in popularity. Yet, fermented dairy isn’t the only way to seed your gut with healthy bacteria. You’re likely familiar with sauerkraut, a fermented cabbage dish popular in Germany, but you can ferment most vegetables at home if you follow proper safety precautions.
It’s not hard to ferment veggies, however, not all vegetables have a pleasing taste after fermentation though. Some of the best options from a flavor standpoint are cucumbers, string beans, green tomatoes, radishes, turnips, parsnips, and cabbage. You can find instructions for fermenting a variety of veggies online. These veggies, once fermented, have a very long shelf-life.
What’s more, fermentation boosts the nutrient availability of vegetables. Some vegetables contain high quantities of phytates, compounds that reduce the absorption of some minerals, including zinc and iron. Fermentation reduces phytates in vegetables, thereby enhancing mineral absorption. Plus, when you consume fermented vegetables, you also get the benefits of the many vitamins and phytochemicals in veggies as well.
Are Probiotic Supplements a Good Substitute for Fermented Foods?
Swallowing a probiotic pill sounds like a simple way to get the healthy bacteria your gut loves. However, there are definite advantages to getting probiotic bacteria from fermented foods rather than a probiotic supplement. For one, fermented foods seed your gut with a variety of bacteria species, whereas a probiotic supplement has only a limited number of the species, ones believed to be most beneficial. Yet, there’s still a lot we DON’T know about probiotics. Do the current supplements on the market really contain the “best” ones?
Another issue: Do probiotic supplements and fermented foods contain ENOUGH bacteria to make a difference? Research shows you need between one hundred million and one billion bacteria per serving of food to confer health benefits. Fermented foods, in general, offer this quantity of bacteria per serving and more. For example, most commercial yogurts with active cultures contain this amount.
Some Probiotic Supplements Fall Short
What about supplements? Probiotic supplements may advertise that they contain the requisite quantity of bacterial colonies – but do they really? Consumer Lab conducted an independent assessment of a variety of probiotic supplements. Based on their findings, not all probiotic supplements contain the number of organisms listed. In addition, when probiotics sit on the shelf, some of the bacteria die over time. Manufacturers usually add more cultures to compensate for this and display a “best by” date on the bottle. If you use the supplement before this date, you, theoretically, should get the number of bacteria listed on the label. However, some companies use “at the time of manufacture” to denote the number of organisms. In this case, the product may contain fewer organisms than listed since it lists the quantity at the time the product was made. Chances are, it’s lost potency by the time you swallow it.
Another benefit of fermented foods over a supplement is fermented vegetables, even dairy contains non-digestible carbohydrates that are “prebiotic,” meaning they feed and promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria. So you’re supplying good bacteria with the nutritional support they need to thrive when you get probiotic bacteria from certain fermented foods. Yogurt itself has both probiotic bacteria and indigestible carbs that bacteria use for nourishment.
If You Rely on Yogurt as a Source of Probiotics
Yogurt can be a decent source of probiotic bacteria as long as you choose wisely. Look for one labeled “contains live cultures or active cultures,” rather than one marked, “made with active cultures.” Some yogurt products “made with active cultures” are heat treated after the cultures grow, thereby destroying some of the bacterial colonies.
The Bottom Line
Fermented foods offer health benefits you don’t necessarily get from probiotic supplements. Not only do you gain probiotic bacteria when you eat fermented foods, but you also get fiber and prebiotics to help the gut bacteria thrive. Plus, fermentation of vegetables increases the bioavailability of some minerals.
A cup of yogurt each day with active cultures should provide you with gut-friendly bacteria, but why not diversify and add fermented vegetables to your diet as well? You can buy fermented foods, like kimchee, fresh sauerkraut (not canned), kefir, and kombucha at many natural food markets or make your own. There’s growing evidence that gut health is key to overall health and probiotic foods help you stay balanced.
There’s growing evidence that probiotic bacteria play a key role in gut health and in how your immune system responds to pathogens – and that’s essential for overall health.
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