Fermented Foods VS Probiotics

For thousands of years humans have been consuming fermented foods. One of the main benefits to fermenting food and one of the reasons it has been around for so long is due to the ability for the fermentation process to improve shelf life. However, fermented foods also provide additional nutritional benefits, and provide variety in taste to their non-fermented original food, but how do they differ from probiotics?.

What is the difference between fermented foods and probiotics?

Many people will refer to probiotics as the supplement or capsule while fermented foods are the foods but the technical definition is that a probiotic is a product (food or supplement) that contains a characterised (known) bacteria which confers a health benefit when consumed in adequate amounts. Essentially, probiotic must be characterised and have clinical evidence of a health benefits when consumed in adequate quantities. 

A fermented food is simply a food that has undergone a fermentation process. Not all fermented foods are probiotics and not all probiotics are fermented. Some fermented foods will contain live microbes but they may not fit the specific definition for probiotics in that they know the bacteria or the health benefits. Some fermented foods may not even contain live microbes though, because factors during processing may have killed off any live bacteria.

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Which one is better?

Well obviously a probiotic which has known strains and clinically proven benefits would be best, however this doesn’t render all fermented foods as useless.

There are a few questions we need to ask when it come to probiotics and fermented foods:

  1. Are there actually living microbes present in the product or supplement?

  2. Are the microbes still living at the time of consumption vs time of production? 

  3. Are the microbes present ones that are actually beneficial to human health?

  4. Do the microbes survive digestion? 

  5. Do they elicit a health benefit when consumed in that form?

  6. How often do you need to take them and in what quantity to elicit the health benefit?

Many fermented foods are associated with positive health effects but we don’t have strong clinical trials to confirm this relationship. We actually have very limited evidence for the health benefits of fermented foods. This doesn’t make them unhealthy or bad though. It just means for many fermented foods we don’t know if they will significantly effect the population of microbes in your gut or not. 

My Top Tips for Choosing Fermented Foods:

  • Look for products that list the specific strains contained in them, typically it will be different strains of bifidobacterium and lactobacillus.

  • Look for products that actually state that they test their products for the presence of live bacteria at the time of production - in the nutrition information panel they will typically show the number of colony forming units (CFU)

  • The live stuff will be kept refrigerated, not on the supermarket shelf. 

  • Consume fermented foods we know can survive digestion like yoghurts and kefir. 

  • Consume fermented foods regularly to get the benefits

  • Remember just because a product adds a probiotic, doesn’t mean it makes it a healthy product. Adding live cultures to a candy bar doesn’t make it a healthy candy bar. 

If you’re thinking of taking a probiotic supplement make sure you read this article I wrote on probiotic myths first.

Are there benefits to consuming fermented foods with live cultures?

It is highly likely! Unlike wine, sourdough and pickles which have all been treated or processed in a way the microbes don’t generally survive, kimchi, kombucha, and other fermented foods may in fact contain live microbes and may contain beneficial microbes. Most of the time we just don’t know because they haven’t been tested. In this case it likely is beneficial, and if nothing else, won’t be harmful.

My favourite way to get in a good dose of bugs?

Live yoghurt, I know dairy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but for me the combination of protein, calcium and live cultures makes it a really easy, convenient way for me to personally get in some good living cultures and tick a few other nutrition boxes too. I do enjoy other fermented foods too but they aren’t as regular in my diet as yoghurt.

Marika x


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