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Is it better to eat probiotic foods or take a probiotic supplement?

several bowls of fermented foods
Highlights
  • Consuming probiotics on a daily basis promotes digestive and immune health
  • Although both probiotic foods and supplements can support overall health, there are distinct advantages to both
  • Whether foods or supplements are the better option for you likely depend on lifestyle factors

Your gut is home to trillions of microbes

Did you know that your gut is home to trillions of living microorganisms that play a critical role in your overall health? It’s true. These microbes make up roughly 1 to 3% of your body weight and help carry out digestive, metabolic, and immune functions when high in abundance and diversity.1 Unfortunately, common factors including stress, aging, poor diet, and environmental toxins can result in the loss of microbial abundance and diversity, leading to health conditions including GI disorders, metabolic syndrome, and skin issues.25

Where do probiotics fit in all of this? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), probiotics are live microorganisms (mainly bacteria and yeasts) that can confer health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts.6 Studies show that probiotics can help:

  • support skin health,5
  • modulate the immune system,7
  • eliminate toxins and waste from the colon (helping to keep you regular!),8
  • manage gastrointestinal (GI) issues,8
  • enhance nutrient absorption,9 and
  • positively influence mood and stress-related behaviors.10

Because of these health benefits, probiotics are commonly referred to as “good” bacteria and considered important for optimal health. So, what’s the best way to provide your gut with a regular infusion of these beneficial bacteria? In this article we will discuss whether it is better to get your probiotics from food, supplements, or a combination of both. 

Three advantages of getting your probiotics through supplements

1. Supplements allow you to be more targeted

Acquiring probiotics through supplements has its distinct advantages. For one thing, supplements allow you to have more control over the specific bacterial strains you ingest—which can be important for addressing a particular health issue. For example, research suggests that DDS®-1, a strain of lactobacillus acidophilus, is helpful for relieving symptoms of lactose intolerance, whereas the strain lactobacillus rhamnosus GG is helpful for addressing symptoms of antibiotic-associated diarrhea.1214

2. Supplements can provide more probiotic diversity

In addition to issue-specific bacterial strains, supplements also give you the opportunity to select a multi-strain blend for microbial diversity, versus a food product like yogurt which may only contain one or two strains.

3. Many probiotic supplements are both allergen-free and sweetener-free

Also, many probiotic supplements are free of common allergens (i.e. dairy, soy, wheat, gluten) so they can fit into anyone’s diet, as opposed to the many soy and dairy-based probiotic-rich foods. And lastly, probiotic supplements can help you avoid added sugar and sweeteners that are often found in probiotic foods such as yogurt, kefir, and kombucha. This is important, given that sugar can disrupt the balance of your body’s beneficial bacteria.15

Probiotic-rich foods deliver micronutrients

An important advantage of consuming probiotics through whole foods is that they can provide a greater source of overall nutrition than supplements. In a recent study evaluating the levels of nutrient intake from foods versus supplements, researchers found that while supplements increase levels of total nutrient intake, there are distinct benefits associated with nutrients from foods not found in supplements.11 For example, probiotic-rich foods deliver micronutrients essential for your body’s daily functions, plant compounds that can help protect your body from oxidative damage and stress, and perhaps the most crucial element for gut health, fiber. Many sources of fiber act as prebiotics (aka “food” to feed the probiotics in your gut.) After all, probiotics need food to function, just like we do. 

But not all fermented foods contain live probiotics

Probiotic bacteria can be found in a number of foods, including cultured dairy products like yogurt and kefir, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, tempeh, natto, miso, and kombucha. However, in order for these foods to confer probiotic benefits, the probiotic bacteria must be alive at the time of consumption.3,11 This can prove somewhat challenging, given that factors related to food processing and storage can affect the survival of probiotic organisms. Here are some helpful tips for ensuring your probiotic foods actually contain viable probiotic bacteria. 

  • When buying yogurt, don’t assume that all yogurt contains live probiotics. Make sure that the container says “live” or “active cultures.” 
  • Pasteurization typically kills live bacteria, so be sure to choose “unpasteurized” sauerkraut.
  • Pickles made using vinegar do not have probiotic effects, so look for fermented pickles rather than ones made with vinegar.

Lifestyle factors to consider 

As you can see there are advantages to getting your daily probiotics from both food and supplements. And importantly, research indicates that both perform well as probiotic delivery vehicles.3 Due to a lack of clinical trials comparing the two, we can’t say if one delivery method is better than the other.3 Most likely, the better delivery option for you will depend on your lifestyle.

Here are some factors to consider when deciding between foods or supplements: 

Do you eat a variety of probiotic-rich foods on a daily basis?

  • If the answer is yes, that’s great! Not only are you providing your body with important vitamins and nutrients it needs, but consuming an array of probiotic bacteria can enhance microbial diversity and intestinal balance.3 Keep on eating those probiotic-rich foods!
  • If the answer is no (due to food allergies, a hectic daily schedule, etc.) you may find it more practical to get your daily probiotics from a high-quality dietary supplement. 

Are you looking to address a specific health issue or specific symptoms? 

  • If the answer is yes, working with a healthcare professional to identify specific bacterial strains appropriate for addressing your health concerns is advisable. And because supplements grant you the freedom to select the strains you ingest, you may find supplements preferable to foods, where you have less control over strain-specificity. 
  • If the answer is no, you may find that eating an abundance of probiotic-rich foods is sufficient for maintaining a healthy gut and immune function. 

Remember to select a trust-worthy and well-researched probiotic supplement 

Probiotics, like all dietary supplements, are not regulated by the FDA. This means that no one is checking to see if what a brand writes on its label is actually in their product. In a recent analysis of various probiotic brands sold in the U.S., Consumer Labs found that 5 of the 19 brands examined either did not contain the number of live microorganisms (probiotics) stated on their label or contained contamination from common “bad” bacteria or mold.16 Yikes. Because there is no guarantee you’re ingesting exactly what the label claims, it is essential that you select a probiotic from a trustworthy and well-researched brand. 

Doesn’t hurt to do both

There’s also the option of getting your probiotics from both food and supplements. That is, even if you decide that a reasonably dosed daily supplement is more practical for your lifestyle, you are still encouraged to incorporate probiotic-rich foods into your diet in order to benefit from the advantages of both. And remember, whether you decide to get your probiotics from food, supplements, or a combination of both—the important thing is that you’re ingesting these beneficial bacteria on a daily basis.

Kate Turner, MA, RD, CPT is the Nutrition Specialist at Nordic Naturals. As a Registered Dietitian and personal trainer, Kate is passionate about improving people’s health through evidence-based nutrition education and exercise. Kate has over 7 years of experience in the field of nutrition as a wellness director, private nutrition consultant, educator, and public speaker.

Gastrointestinal (GI): Of, relating to, affecting, or including both the stomach and intestines.

Kimchi: A spicy vegetable dish that consists of one or more pickled and fermented vegetables, including napa cabbage and radishes, with various seasonings (such as garlic, red chili pepper, ginger, scallions, and anchovy paste).

Kombucha: A beverage produced by fermenting sweet tea with a culture of yeast and bacteria.

Metabolic syndrome: A cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. These conditions include increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels.

Miso: A paste made from fermented soybeans, salt and typically barley or rice.

Natto: Fermented soybeans that has a stringy texture.

Pasteurization: A process where heat is applied to certain foods and beverages in order to destroy harmful microorganisms without major chemical alterations to the substance.

Prebiotics: Nondigestible substances that act as food for the gut microbiota. Prebiotics stimulate growth or activity of certain healthy bacteria that live in the body.

Tempeh: A firm fermented soybean cake often used as a meat alternative.

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