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Is It Better to Get Probiotics From Food or Supplements?

Probiotics are one of the most widely recommended supplements, but they can also be found naturally in many different types of food. New research suggests that food may be a better source of probiotics than taking them from a supplement.

Key takeaways:

With so many incredible benefits, you want to make sure you’re ingesting probiotics from the best source possible. This article examines the role of probiotics in our health and the best places to find them.

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Probiotics and your microbiome

You’re not alone. Besides your blood, bones, tissues, and organs, you’re also host to many microbes that make up the human microbiome.

These beneficial bacteria, viruses, and fungi work together to keep you healthy and functioning at your best. The largest concentration of your microbiome lies in your gut. Probiotics help to support it.

Probiotics are a combination of different live microorganisms, mainly bacteria, that offer health benefits when consumed, whether through food or supplements. The most common probiotics found in food and supplements are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Many of these bacteria are the same or similar to the ones you find in the body naturally.

Why are probiotics important?

If we already have these microorganisms in our bodies, why do we need to ingest outside sources of them? The most common reason people consume probiotics is to support their gut health, but that’s not all they’re good for.

Taking probiotics offers numerous potential benefits, including:

  • Better sleep
  • Lower stress levels
  • Improved brain health
  • Better gut health
  • Enhanced mood

It’s not just physical health probiotics can help you feel better all around. It’s no wonder that so many people are turning to them. One survey found that about one-third of adults in the U.S. reported that they try to consume probiotics actively.

Of course, like many supplements, not all probiotics are created equally, especially when you can save time and money by consuming them through food sources.

Which is better? Probiotics from food or supplements?

Probiotics are now widely available in both supplements and foods where they are naturally occurring. Is one better than the other?

Getting probiotics through food is typically a better approach than using a supplement. Traveling through the digestive tract is an incredibly tough journey. Food, especially dairy products like yogurt, can help buffer some of the GI tract acidity so probiotics can better survive through to the intestine. In addition to helping to buffer stomach acid, another benefit of getting probiotics through food is the additional nutrition that foods provide.

Kristie Leigh, registered dietitian and Director of Health & Scientific Affairs at Danone North America

Probiotic supplements vary significantly in quality. Leigh reminds us that "a higher number of CFUs (colony-forming units) doesn't always mean a better or more effective product."

The role of prebiotics in your health

While probiotics may be the star of the gut health show, they have some very important support actors behind the scenes — prebiotics. Prebiotics are naturally occurring, non-digestible food substances that you can find in various vegetables, fruits, and fermented products. They are essential for the growth of microorganisms in the human body.

Prebiotic fiber is found in plant foods such as:

  • Asparagus
  • Onions
  • Berries
  • Bananas
  • Oats
  • Chicory
  • Dandelion
  • Leeks
  • Garlic
  • Apples

Research from the American Gut Project found that people who consume 30 different types of plants a week have greater gut bacteria diversity, a potential indicator of good gut health, compared to those who consume ten or fewer plants a week. This is especially important in the context of research that shows everyone has their own unique gut microbiome. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to a healthy combination of gut bacteria.

Finding probiotics at the grocery store

If food is generally a better source of probiotics than taking a supplement, you’ll want to know how to find the most gut-friendly options in your grocery store. We asked Leigh what to look for when buying probiotic-rich foods.

It’s a common misconception that all fermented foods, like kimchi and kombucha, automatically contain probiotics. A national consumer survey that we commissioned through Danone North America found that more than half of Americans (52%) incorrectly believe that all fermented foods contain probiotics. In reality, that isn’t always the case, even if a product says something like ‘live and active cultures’ on the label.

Specific strains of bacteria need to be studied for their benefits to the human body to be considered a probiotic. While all fermented food contains bacteria cultures, not all can be labeled as probiotics. Those without probiotic benefits are often used as good fermenters or to improve texture, taste, and shelf-life. Processing is also important. Some cultures are destroyed through the cooking or pasteurizing processes.

Making the best choice for your body and gut

Choosing the right products can feel daunting, especially if you are new to the world of probiotics and prebiotics. Leigh reminds us of the importance of reading the labels and researching the specific strains.

If you’re looking for probiotic foods for their potential health benefits, it’s important to check the label. Seeing the word ‘probiotic’ isn’t always enough, you also have to search the label for the full name of the probiotic strain. This is typically a three-part name including the genus, species, and strain information ending in a combination of letters and numbers. You can also do a quick online search to see if it has been researched and found to benefit human health.

It makes sense to consume something from a naturally occurring source instead of purchasing an extra product — especially if it may be more readily available to the body. Prioritizing probiotics from food may be more beneficial but can also help save money and motivate you to make healthier food choices.

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