The popularity of probiotics is officially peaking but when it comes to their health benefits, is it best to start a supplement or pile your plate with probiotic-rich food? Here’s what the science says about probiotic foods vs probiotic supplements so you can make an educated decision about the way you consume your probiotics.

But, first things first…

What are probiotics?   

Probiotics are live bacteria which help to maintain the health of our gut microbiome when eaten in adequate amounts. This can have a positive effect on our overall health and wellbeing. For more information about the benefits of the gut microbiome check out this article.

But the key phrase here is ‘adequate amounts’. It is important to remember that just because you are consuming ‘good’ bacteria, it doesn’t mean they are going to transform your gut microbiome. To have any impact on your health the bacteria in probiotics need to make it through the acidic stomach and the small intestine to the large intestine, where our gut microbes reside. Once in the large intestine, they need to find a place to thrive, which is not always possible when you have a well-populated microbiome. (I don’t understand this part!).

Probiotic foods

There are a number of foods that contain probiotics, including fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and miso. This is because the good bacteria that we want in our digestive tract are responsible for the fermentation of these foods. Below are some pros and cons of consuming probiotics in food.

Pros

  • Getting your probiotics from fermented food means you’re also getting additional, beneficial nutrients rather than just probiotics alone. This is beneficial because probiotics have also been shown to increase the availability of micronutrients and even produce some themselves.
  • There is a wider diversity of probiotic strains in food compared to supplements.
  • Preliminary research suggests more probiotics survived when consumed in yoghurt compared to supplements. However, these are early studies and the health outcomes of this have not yet been tested.

Cons

  • Fermented foods can have a strong (ahem, funky) flavour which may not be enjoyed by everyone.
  • There is limited evidence surrounding the amount of probiotics present in foods, since unlike supplements, this can vary widely depending on factors like processing and storage.
  • It’s been suggested that higher numbers of bacteria are needed in probiotic-rich food to produce the same effect as supplements.

Probiotic supplements  

There are also different types of probiotic supplements available on the market including pills, capsules, liquids and powders. Below are some pros and cons of consuming probiotics in supplements. (Is there a difference between pills, capsules and liquids?)

Pros

  • The type and number of strains in probiotic supplements can be easily controlled. Since different types of probiotics have different functions, this can be beneficial if you are looking for a specific health outcome.
  • Probiotic supplements contain large amounts of bacteria, which can increase their efficiency.

Cons

  • Probiotic supplements can be expensive especially if you are consuming a broad-spectrum probiotic.
  • It is possible to consume too many probiotics, which can result in unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, discomfort and gas.
  • The amount of bacteria in probiotic supplements can be affected during storage due to factors such as temperature and humidity.

There is currently limited evidence to suggest one method of probiotic consumption is clearly better than the other when it comes to our gut health. However, we would still recommend consuming probiotics in food where possible. Probiotic foods tend to be cheaper than supplements, plus you are consuming a number of important vitamins and minerals at the same time.