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Breaking Down the Probiotic Puzzle

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Pickles, sauerkraut and other fermented foods

Probiotics are a hot topic! From gut-health to migraines there seems to be a probiotic for everything. Probiotic supplement options are endless, and they are added to various foods and beverages as well.

How do you know you need a probiotic? What do you need to look for in a probiotic supplement? Which products can you trust? This article helps answer these questions by breaking probiotic supplementation facts into bite-size pieces for easy understanding and application.

What is a probiotic?

“Live microorganisms that, when taken in adequate amounts, provide a health benefit to the host.”
A probiotic must be alive when taken and must provide the right dose shown in research to provide a health benefit. Larger doses do not always provide more health benefit than smaller doses. Probiotic doses are measured in “colony forming units” (CFU).

There are three parts to the name of a probiotic:

  1. Genus
  2. Species
  3. Strain

We can use the animal kingdom to demonstrate the naming structure: the genus is the general family (ex.: dogs), the species is the type of dog (ex.: poodle) and the strain is a specific variety of poodle (ex.: toy poodle).

A probiotic name example: Lactobacillus (genus) acidophilus (species) ABC (strain)

It is important to take a specific strain of probiotic for the health condition or symptom you are experiencing. Many are available over the counter and some require a prescription.

What to look for in a probiotic

  • What is the strain? This is key to knowing which health effect a probiotic provides.
  • What is the dose? The dose is also important to whether a strain will have a health effect.
  • Is there research showing a health benefit?

Examples of available brands that contain beneficial probiotic strains and the conditions they support:

  • Activia®, constipation  
  • Dan Active®, antibiotic associated diarrhea prevention
  • Florastor®, Clostridium Difficile (C. Diff) associated diarrhea

Where to find information about probiotics

Finding research on probiotics can be challenging. Below are two reliable resources:

Are cultured and fermented foods probiotics?

Possibly but not necessarily. People often assume cultured or fermented foods are by nature probiotics. However, cultured and fermented foods must meet the definition as noted above and summarized below to be probiotics:

  1. Must contain live organisms or cultures
  2. Must be taken in an adequate dose
  3. Shown in research to provide a health benefit

Many foods made with “live active cultures,” or fermented foods are made with wild bacteria that have never been studied for their health benefit. Examples of such products widely thought to always contain probiotics, but may or may not, are kombucha, yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi.

Cooking and pasteurization, which are good for preventing food-borne illness, kill the living microorganisms so they are no longer “live.” This is a crucial factor when defining probiotics—the organism must be live. Examples of foods where their cultures have been killed by pasteurization or cooking and therefore can no longer be probiotics are tempeh, wine, beer and sourdough bread.

Benefits of fermented foods

  • Improve taste, texture and enjoyment of food
  • Increase natural diversity of existing gut microbes in humans which may play a role in gut health and lowering risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease
  • Provide food for natural gut microbes in the human gut, we call this food (prebiotic)
  • Promote anti-inflammatory effects in the gut
  • Improves the absorption of nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin K, magnesium and zinc
  • Provide antioxidants


  • For general health, incorporating fermented foods may be more important than taking a probiotic.
  • Buyer beware of marketed probiotic foods, beverages and supplements.
  • Foods and supplements marketed as probiotics may not be unless they contain specific strains and doses of probiotics shown in research to benefit specific conditions.
  • Many foods and supplements list the genus and species but not the strain of probiotic, making it impossible to determine if they are actually probiotics.
  • Supplements often list a probiotic “proprietary blend,” so the specific dose of each probiotic ingredient is unknown making it uncertain if the supplements are probiotics.

Depending on an individual’s unique situation, taking a probiotic may or may not be beneficial. As noted above, there are many ways other than taking probiotics to benefit gut health, including but not limited to fermented foods! Before spending your money on a probiotic that might not do what you think it should, consult with a Cooper Clinic registered dietitian nutritionist to help decide which probiotics, dietary changes and supplements are right for you.

To schedule a one-on-one consultation or learn more about Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services, visit or call 972.560.2655.

Article provided by Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services.