How to Choose the Right Probiotic Foods and Supplements

By Julia Reedy, MNSP, November 19, 2021

gut health probiotics

What’s the difference between cabbage and kimchi? Milk and yogurt? Juice and kombucha? Yes, the answer is fermentation. But it really goes so far beyond that. When live microorganisms are introduced to everyday foods, they can drastically alter their nutritional makeup for the better. But not all fermented foods are created equal, and, in fact, some of the foods you think are packed with probiotics might really just be faking it. Here's how to get good-quality microorganisms in the foods you eat.


Why do probiotics matter?

Our microbiome – the ecosystem of bacteria living in our colon – is a critical component of numerous aspects of our health. But it doesn't magically keep itself in order. In fact, lots of things – like getting sick, medications, or even just the foods we eat – can throw off the balance of good vs evil bacteria in our gut. That's where probiotics come in; they're live, helpful bacteria that populate our gut to police the streets. And we can get them from our diet or through supplements. Here are some best practices for doing so.


Getting probiotics in your food

Don't get tricked

Lots of our favorite foods depend on the fermentation process but don’t necessarily contain probiotics, like cheese, bread, olives, and even chocolate. The key? The bacteria are removed or killed by the end of their processing. Opt for foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, some pickles, and tempeh, all of which retain bacteria into the final product. It's best to incorporate a combination of these in your diet, as they all have different fermentation signatures and therefore offer unique benefits.

Keep in mind that there are even varieties of these foods which rip off their signature tangy flavor with acids like vinegar instead of the real microbial deal. To avoid these bootlegs, look for words like “contains live active cultures,” “naturally fermented,” or the name of a bacterial strain on labels and in ingredient lists. And if it’s a liquid like kombucha or pickling liquid, look for bubbles – it means there are indeed gas-creating bacteria inside.

Enjoy a treat

If you and lactose don’t have a good relationship, you may be more tolerant of fermented milk products like yogurt, kefir, and even some hard cheeses (hard cheeses like parmesan are fermented longer than soft ones like brie, but do note that they don't retain bacteria). The probiotics in these foods break down lactose for energy, which means there’s less left behind for you to deal with. Bacteria also produce vitamin b12 as a byproduct of this process, so yogurt has more b12 than milk per ounce.

Bonus: probiotics vs. prebiotics

You might have noticed that certain foods make you extra gassy – things like beans, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, and even dried fruits. They all contain fibers that humans can’t digest, but that bacteria eat up with gusto, generating gas as a byproduct. These fibers, and a few other compounds, are known as prebiotics. Think of them as what comes before the probiotics to help them grow. Other prebiotic foods include garlic, onions, oats, asparagus, and bananas, to name a few, and they're equally as important to incorporate into your diet as the bacteria that gobble them up.


Choosing the right probiotic supplement

Strains that work

If you choose to get your probiotics in capsule form, look for products Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus GG, Streptococcus thermophilus, and Bifidobacterium longum strains. Ideally, your probiotic will contain at least two of these strains. Different strains perform differently, and therefore have different effects in the body.

For that reason, if you're looking to alleviate certain symptoms (ex. constipation) look for a product that's been tested for exactly that purpose – it will say so on the label.

Not too cold

As we mentioned above, probiotics live in your colon – the very last portion of your digestive tract. So the supplements you take must be resilient enough to survive the long journey through your churning, acidic stomach and your bile-packed small intestine. A good indicator that they won’t be able to endure the trek? If they’re refrigerated! If the bacteria can’t survive in room temps, they certainly won’t be able to survive stomach acid.

Extra info

Probiotics should be taken on an empty stomach or at the end of a meal. And like antibiotics, it's possible to be allergic to a specific strain of probiotics – talk to your doctor before starting a new supplement regimen.


The Round-Up

Like many health and nutrition topics, probiotics isn't one that can be easily and completely summarized. But hopefully this round-up has you feeling prepared and equipped to make the right decisions for your microbiome.

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