Probiotic Food vs. Probiotic Supplements
Probiotics are living microorganisms, which, when consumed in adequate amounts, provide health benefits. They are available in a variety of forms. There are two broad categories: foods and supplements. They have different qualities and characteristics, which may be seen as advantages or disadvantages. The form an individual chooses for consumption is really a matter of personal preference. Probiotic supplements can be taken before, during, or after eating; there are no recommendations for, or against, specific foods being helpful or harmful when using probiotics.
Which Food is Considered to be Probiotic Food?
The food most associated with probiotics is yogurt, although not all yogurt contains probiotics. It must contain live cultures to be considered a probiotic food. It’s important to read labels, which should list the strain of bacteria it includes. In yogurt, the probiotic strain is usually a species of lactobacillus or bifidobacterium, although some brands have been found to list one type of probiotic on the label, but actually contain a different type. Yogurt, and other foods with probiotics, usually contain only one strain of bacteria. Yogurt often contains sugar, which is usually not present in supplements.
Yogurt is highly perishable, but it can be frozen. It’s often cheaper to consume probiotics in foods rather than supplements. There’s great variation in the levels of live bacteria from product to product, and even within the same product. Some people see the need for cold storage as a drawback. Yogurt often contains sugar, which may also be a drawback for some consumers.
Other foods which contain probiotics include: sauerkraut, miso soup (from fermented soybean paste), soft cheeses (like Gouda), kefir, sourdough bread, pickles which are naturally fermented (not made with vinegar), and tempe (Indonesian soybean patty) which can fight certain undesirable bacteria. There are more.
What are Probiotic Supplements?
As opposed to probiotic food, probiotic supplements are usually found in pills or capsules, although there are many more forms, such as powders, granules, and beverages. A single supplement can contain many different strains of bacteria, although it has not been determined if having multiple strains in one product is of more benefit than consuming a single strain.
Care should be taken with selecting a supplement. See Probiotics Life Article: Leading Brands and remember to read labels! The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for labeling to include:
- Quantity of microorganisms per unit (e.g. one pill, one dose).
- Expiration date.
- Serving size.
- Potential health benefits.
- Storage requirement.
- Contact information for the manufacturer.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow health claims to be made about probiotics. The FDA has granted probiotics GRAS status (Generally Recognized As Safe). Risk of infection is negligible. Caution is advised in their use in preterm infants, patients with weakened immune systems (immunocompromised), and patients who are critically ill, hospitalized in intensive care.
If you’re looking for a basic background explanation, you’re invited to read this article: What are Probiotics?
Probiotic Food and Probiotic Supplements: Research Resources
- Sanders ME. Use of probiotics and yogurts in maintenance of health. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2008 Jul;42 suppl2:S71-4
- Sanders ME, Marco ML. Food formats for effective delivery of probiotics. Annu Rev Food SCI Technol. 2010; 1:165-85