Unpasteurized fermented foods are one of the best ways to get probiotics into your diet. It is the natural and simple way. In many cases, however, cultured foods are not the best choice, and probiotic supplements should be chosen. In this page we attempt to give you information on how to choose between fermented foods and supplements, and when prebiotic foods or supplements are appropriate.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are microorganisms that benefit our health. They are good bacteria and yeasts that will interact with the host, providing essential nutrients, helping digestion, increasing absorption of essential nutrients, boosting immunity, and helping the host’s mental health.
Probiotics are slowly making their way into mainstream medicine, and more and more data is gathered through scientific research to explain how probiotics can benefit our health. In the last few years, there have been a lot of discoveries in the field that recommend probiotics as a non-invasive, safe treatment in many inflammatory and immunity related conditions.
We now start to understand that our nutritional needs are infinitely more complex than the rudimentary doctrine of the “protein/fat/carbs” approach. One of the key components previously discarded by nutritionists are fermented foods. Fermented foods have a high content of probiotics, and they are essential for good health. Being loaded with probiotics, they can prevent many inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
We now understand that the symbiosis between the good microbes and us is essential for our health, and probiotic (pro-life) microorganisms are responsible for our health. We literally need them. Probiotics can directly help our health by modulating immune responses, and by eliminating pathogens (bad bacteria, bad yeast, and viruses).
What Are Fermented Foods?
Fermented foods are foods that have been processed using yeasts or bacteria with the intent of changing the food’s organoleptic properties, or to preserve it. Cultured foods are a great source of probiotics and traditional diets include them. Eating a variety of fermented foods will introduce a diversified microflora in our bodies. The more diversified our microflora, the better we are equipped to battle infections and illness.
Fermented Foods vs Probiotics Supplements
When starting on probiotics, people wonder what is the best way to get them. Is it better to get probiotics from our daily diet by introducing fermented foods? Or is it best to start with probiotic supplements?
It all depends on the case, but as a general rule, if you are healthy, you can start with cultured foods and drinks, and this will help you stay healthy. Eat in moderation all sorts of fermented foods, as each of them contains different strains of microorganisms, and they benefit your health differently. If you need probiotics for an existing condition, you probably need to start with supplements. The reason is that supplements are a controlled product, and contain specific strains, thus you can target your condition. They are also designed to have minimal side effects. With supplements, you know the number of CFU (colony forming units); for cultured foods, you don’t. Cultured foods contain a consistent amount of additive to maintain a pathogen-free environment and to stimulate the microorganisms’ growth. Some of these substances are salt, sugar, and lactose. In contrast, probiotic supplements contain only traces of lactose; therefore, sometimes they are appropriate even for the lactose intolerant.
Probiotics and Fermented Foods Benefits
There are a lot of health benefits from maintaining a healthy microbiome, and science discovers more and more areas where probiotics can be used to help. The list of the health benefits of using probiotics is very long, but here are a few examples:
- Improve heart health
- Oral health
- Immunity modulation
- Mental health
- Intestinal and digestive health
- Uro-genital health
- Cancer prevention
- Weight control
- Chronic inflammation reduction
Examples of Fermented Foods
There are many types of cultured foods, and many fermentation techniques. Wild fermentation is among the best types, because the processed food will contain more than one or two strains of beneficial bacteria. With controlled fermentation, in most cases, the starter contains 1 to 4 strains. There are cultures that contain more strains. These cultures include tibicos (water kefir), milk kefir, kombucha, etc… Here is a list of fermented foods you can buy or make at home:
- Fermented milk: yogurt, kefir, sour cream, butter milk, certain cheeses
- Fermented vegetables: sauerkraut, dill pickled cucumbers, beet kvass, many other vegetables like turnips, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.
- Fermented beans: nato, tempeh, miso
- Fermented grains: boza, sourdough, beer, kvass, Rejuvelac, borsh
- Fermented fruits: must, wine
Fermented foods are most valuable in their raw, unpasteurized, uncooked form. Once the cultured foods are exposed to heat, they lose all the beneficial microorganisms. Pasteurization is a common technique to extend the shelf life of many fermented products, but this destroys the medical value of the food.
Prebiotics - Indigestible Carbohydrates
Prebiotics are the newest trend in the probiotic industry, as an alternative way to improve the intestinal microbiome. Prebiotics are also named many times soluble fibre, but there more types of prebiotics, soluble fibre is only one type. The concept behind the prebiotics is that certain carbohydrates are undigestible by humans, and they pass through the stomach untouched. Once passed the stomach, they reach the intestine wher they feed bacteria, which thrives on these foods. A food, is considered prebiotic only if it selectively stimulate probiotic microorganisms. If both good and bad bacteria can feed on a food, then the food is not prebiotic.
The relationship between prebiotic carbohydrates and microflora is very complex, and we only starting to understand various interactions between what we eat and our intestinal microbiome. More about these on my article about prebiotic foods. If you need to strictly controlle the amount and type of indigestible carbohydrates, take a look at my list of prebiotic supplements.
Best Probiotic Supplements
It is difficult to name a list with the best probiotic supplements because many great products target different health conditions; hence, we are comparing apples and oranges. If you have a specific health issue to address, however, it gets easier. Here are a few tips to help you find the best probiotic supplement for you:
- Look for the manufacturer’s claims regarding the health benefits.
- Check the list of strains, and make sure those microorganisms are scientifically proven to improve the specific health issue.
- Check for peer reviews for the products you wish to use. Sometimes a product contains strains manufactured by third parties.
- Check the encapsulation technology, and if the product requires refrigeration. If the product requires refrigeration, you need to make sure the merchant (manufacturer or reseller) strictly complies with the storage and transportation rules.
- Check the product reviews on the Internet. Sometime online reviews can be manipulated, but it is usually evident if they are.
- Check my article about the best rated supplements, or get an idea on what products are on the Internet from my list of probiotic supplements.
Dangers and Side Effects of Probiotics
The Safety of Probiotics
Probiotics are one of the safest treatments available; however, there are cases where probiotics have to be avoided or approached very carefully. People with compromised immunity should not use probiotics.
Soil Based Organisms probiotics (SBOs) are the latest trend in the industry and, in many cases, they are more efficient than lactobacilli, bifidobacteria, or yeasts. They can even stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria. Nonetheless, SBOs are less safe than other microorganisms, and prolonged use can cause unpredicted outcomes, including infections.
With probiotics and fermented foods, you always have to take it gradually, and increase the dose every day to avoid side effects. These side effects include diarrhea, rash, abdominal cramps, gas, and constipation. The side effects will stop with interruption, and they will eventually stop even with higher doses after the adaptation period, usually between 2 and 6 weeks.