This content was made possible due to an unrestricted educational grant from Activia.
Fermented foods and probiotics are two areas that are very popular in the field of gut-health promotion. People often think fermented foods and probiotics are the same – but they differ in many important ways! Let’s break it down.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) define probiotics as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”1 In plain language, probiotics are “good bugs” or “good microbes” that improve certain aspects of our health. Each probiotic is unique, has a very specific intended purpose, with specific types or strains helping to manage certain specific conditions.2 These may include reducing antibiotic-associated diarrhea, managing IBS symptoms like bloating, and changes in bowel habits. These friendly microbes also help us digest fibre and other nutrients.
Probiotics are known by their genus, species, sometimes subspecies, and strain. For example, for the probiotic bacterium Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis CNCM I-2494, the genus is ‘Bifidobacterium’, the species is ‘animalis’, the subspecies is ‘lactis’ and the strain is ‘CNCM I-2494’.
Contrary to what you may think, probiotics don’t make their way into your gut and set up ‘camp’ but rather, have a ‘transient’ effect meaning you consume them, they do a specific job, and then they leave your gut.
It’s important to note that not everyone needs to take a probiotic for general “gut health”. Probiotics have been identified as a treatment for specific conditions and symptom relief. It’s important that you talk with your doctor, pharmacist, or dietitian before taking a probiotic, to ensure you have a proper diagnosis and understand how a probiotic may be helpful. Together, you can select an appropriate probiotic that is the most suitable for you.
Probiotics come in various forms. Some come in pill form or powders, and they can also be found in certain foods!
Fermented foods are foods or beverages that are produced by controlled microbial growth.3 They include things like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and miso, to name a few!
It may come as a surprise, but fermented foods have been around for thousands of years! Although they were initially valued because of their long shelf life, and organoleptic properties (i.e. their taste and texture), research has also allowed us to understand their potential health benefits.4,5
Consumption of fermented dairy foods such as yogurt have been scientifically studied. Health benefits include:6
Depending on the food, certain species of bacteria, yeasts and molds will carry out fermentation. Microbes that carry out fermentation can still be alive in some fermented foods. However, other foods that undergo fermentation are then processed by pasteurization, smoking, baking, or filtering, which destroys the active microbes.
Fermented foods that DO contain live microbes include:7
Fermented foods that DO NOT contain live microbes include:7
The short answer is no. Not all fermented foods use strains of microbes that have proven benefits for our health, or that can survive the trip through the gut. In addition, not all fermented foods have adequate amounts of those microbes to qualify as a probiotic!
You can find a few fermented foods with probiotics on the market, like probiotic yogurt, however, you should check the label and read carefully. Products should display each strain’s designation, though some probiotics sold on the market may also use a simplified trademarked name instead.
As you can see, fermented milks, such as some yogurts and kefir, contain probiotics. Still, as we mentioned earlier, not all fermented foods contain live cultures, and even if they do contain live cultures, these cultures may not meet the definition of a probiotic. In conclusion, you should always try to be informed about the fermented foods you are consuming and work with a health care professional if you are looking to add fermented foods to your diet to treat a specific ailment.