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Fermented Foods vs. Probiotics

by Okanagan Nutrition

There has been a lot of buzz around gut health and the massive community of microorganisms that make up your gut microbiome. And for good reason!

Although researchers have only just begun to scratch the surface of the extremely complex relationship between our gut microbes and our health, what they have found so far is fascinating!

Poor gut health, particularly low microbial diversity (how many different types of microbial species you have in your gut), is now being linked as a contributing factor to a laundry list of health conditions including, but not limited to:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • ADHD
No wonder we are so keen to promote good gut health!

With the emerging research about the tight knit relationship between your gut microbiota (the community of microbes) and your overall health, the use of probiotics and fermented foods has exploded!

Some of the proclaimed benefits of eating fermented foods or taking probiotic supplements include:

  • Promoting gut health, including a healthy balance of good bacteria in your gut
  • Improved digestion and tolerance to certain foods
  • Helping prevent flare-ups of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and Colitis)
  • Helping prevent and treat antibiotic-associated diarrhea
  • Helping manage mental health conditions like stress, anxiety, depression, and ADHD
  • Promoting heart health
  • Can assist in reducing the severity of allergies and/or eczema
  • Improve your immune function, protecting you from illness
  • Weight management
But, are fermented foods and probiotic supplements one in the same?

Although both have health benefits, they are not the same, so let’s clarify.

If you just want the knitty gritty, scroll down to the Bottom Line, section.

Fermented Foods

Us humans have been consuming fermented foods for thousands of years.

Traditionally, fermentation was used for food preservation.

Although fermented foods are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, it is more common for people to want to consume them for the health benefits associated with the living microorganisms that fermented foods may contain.

Fermentation is the process of living organisms like bacteria, digesting food components (carbohydrates) to create substances like acid and other organic compounds.

Fermentation is used in the production of many foods and beverages including beer, wine, and chocolate! These foods, however, do not have living microorganisms or any probiotic benefit by the time we eat or drink them as heat processing destroys them.

Moral of the story

Living microorganisms are needed for the process of fermentation, but not all fermented food products contain living microorganisms.
Some of the most recognized fermented foods available to us today include:
  • Kombucha
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kefir and other cultured dairy products
  • Tempeh
  • Miso (fermented soybeans)
  • Sourdough bread

You can think of fermentation as mimicking human digestion!

It makes food easier to digest, it increases the availability and absorption of vitamins and minerals, and some bacterial strains even create B vitamins, including B12.

Fermented foods that contain living microorganisms may have anywhere from 1 million to 1 billion viable (alive and well) microbes per 1 mL or 1 gram.

This may seem like a lot, but when we look at probiotic supplements, a majority contain a minimum for 5-10 billion viable microorganisms (known as CFU in the probiotic world).

Pro Tip #1:

Buying sauerkraut or kimchi for the benefits of consuming living microorganisms? Make sure that your sauerkraut is stored in the refrigerated section, that it states “natural fermentation” and that it is “unpasteurized”.

Pro Tip #2:

Making your own sauerkraut? Make sure that you are not using iodized salt. Iodine is a natural anti-microbial agent and will kill those beneficial bacteria needed for the process of fermentation.

Probiotics

To be classified as a probiotic, a known living bacteria (microorganism) must be known to have demonstrated health benefits when given in specific doses.

Some examples of known probiotic strains include – L. acidophilus SD5212,
L. plantarum SD5209 and L. rhamnosus GG.

Some fermented foods can classify as probiotic food IF they contain living and known probiotic strains.

Different strains have different functions in the gut and therefore different health outcomes or benefits.

Many probiotic supplements will have multiple different probiotic strains in them. It is actually recommended that you look for a probiotic supplement with various strains and high doses (at least 10 billion CFU).

It is becoming more and more common for foods to be supplemented with probiotics as well!

The best-known example of probiotic-containing foods would be dairy products. These days however, fruit juices and even chocolate bars can be supplemented with probiotic cultures.

What to look for in a probiotic

I highly recommend visiting this website, Probiotic Chart , if you are shopping around for a probiotic supplement that is going to be right for you!

Look for one that has Level I or II evidence to support its health benefits!

In general, look for a probiotic with at least 10 billion CFU (colony forming units).

Try and find a probiotic with an enteric coated capsule, meaning, it is designed to survive digestion and make it to the goal destination, your large intestine (colon) so the probiotics can work their magic!

Bottom line

Fermented foods and probiotics can be beneficial at helping promote gut health and manage conditions like IBS, allergies or eczema, but they are different.

When you take a probiotic you are taking a highly concentrated dose of specific bacterial strains known to have health benefits. How do we know that they have benefit? Research tells us so.

Although the process of fermentation relies on living microorganisms, not all fermented foods have living organisms (potential probiotics). For example, sourdough bread, beer, wine or chocolate are produced via fermentation, but the final products do not have living organisms due to heat treatment or filtering.

When you eat a fermented food with living organisms, there may be probiotic strains in them, BUT, they are in limited numbers, not even close to the numbers you get in a probiotic supplement. We also don’t know for sure if these microorganisms survive digestion to make it to their goal destination, the colon (large intestine).

But, the potential benefits of eating fermented foods don’t only come from living organisms!

Fermentation also makes foods more easily digestible, creates substances known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and can increase the availability of certain vitamins and minerals, making them easier to absorb.

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