If you’re not taking/drinking/eating probiotics right now, are you even healthy?! Just kidding. But these little critters that live in your gut are everywhere these days, from supplements to probiotic-enriched granolas and waters. But do these products actually benefit your gut microbiome, or is it just really good marketing?
If all of the probiotic options make your head spin, and the word ‘microbiome’ sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, listen up. This simple guide will help you navigate the probiotic aisle and understand which ones we think are really worth your energy (and money).
What Are Probiotics Anyway?
Simply put: Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that live inside your gut. Your gut contains 10 times more microbial cells than the rest of your body. This collection of probiotics, a.k.a. the microbiome, amounts to roughly 100 trillion microbes, representing more than 5,000 different species of bacteria.
In 2008, the Human Microbiome Project set out to classify the human microbiome and determine how these individual microorganisms affect our health. Through their research, scientists have determined that although human DNA is 99 percent identical, each person’s microbiome DNA is only about 10 percent identical. So my microbiome may be made up of 95 percent X bacteria, while yours may be 95 percent of Y bacteria. That means that probiotic supplements are not one-size-fits-all.
How to Choose a Probiotic
There is still so much that is unknown, but most research points to the fact that consuming probiotics contributes to a healthy microbiome. And a healthy microbiome has been linked to a healthier immune system and fewer incidences of obesity.
But here’s the problem—since everyone’s microbiome is different, there’s no one probiotic that works best for everyone. So when it comes to the amount and variety of probiotics, the answer is simple—the more strains and cultures, the better. With that being said, we rated several probiotic products in terms of culture count and strain variety. Here’s what we found.
1. Probiotic Supplements
Because supplements are not regulated by the FDA, there is no set standard for the formulation of probiotic supplements. That means each brand has a unique formula with various strains and a different number of cultures, leading to an endless and overwhelming amount of choices for consumers. Although there is a ton of research on probiotics, scientists are still sorting out which strain works best for specific health needs.
So what should we do? Choose multi-strain probiotics, because they appear to be more beneficial for your health than single-strain versions. Health benefits of probiotics: are mixtures more effective than single strains? Chapman CM, Gibson GR, Rowland I. European journal of nutrition, 2011, Jan.;50(1):1436-6215. One product we like is Renew Life’s Ultimate Flora. With 50 billion live cultures and 10 probiotic strains per capsule, this is one of the most robust probiotic supplements on the market.
The American Gastroenterological Association also recommends sticking with trusted brands that have been around a long time, as they have a better reputation and have been tested more thoroughly. One brand they recommend, Culturelle Probiotics, only contains one strain of probiotics, but the brand has been used in more than 100 clinical trials and is known to be reputable. Lastly, MegaFood MegaFlora contains 20 billion active bacteria and 14 strains in each capsule, making it a great way for people to cover all of their bacteria bases.
This cultured milk product naturally contains live active cultures, a.k.a. probiotics. Some of the most trusted and widely available brands on the market, such as Lifeway Kefir and Wallaby Organic, contain a powerful probiotic profile: Each cup has 12 different probiotic strains. Not to mention that kefir is high in protein (6 grams per cup), calcium, and vitamin D. Milk kefir: nutritional, microbiological and health benefits. Rosa DD, Dias MMS, Grześkowiak ŁM. Nutrition research reviews, 2017, Feb.;30(1):1475-2700. For those who don’t like to pop a pill every day, kefir is the next best bet. Add it to your morning smoothie for a probiotic boost.
Fermented foods, like sauerkraut, are rich in probiotics. Like supplements, every brand is different, but some high-quality brands like Farmhouse Culture have 80 billion live cultures and about five probiotic strains in just 4 tablespoons of delicious sauerkraut. Cleveland Kraut is another small-batch brand doing great things. Although the company doesn’t list the strain or culture count on the product, Cleveland Kraut is unpasteurized to allow for the growth of as many probiotics as possible. And, from personal experience, it tastes super fresh.
The only downside to relying on sauerkraut for probiotics is that you probably don’t eat it on a daily basis. If it’s an occasional addition to a weekend hot dog, then you’re probably not eating it frequently enough to reap the benefits (and because, hot dogs). But if you’re thinking, Yes, I love kraut and need to eat it more, try adding it to sandwiches, salads, or grilled proteins. Your gut will thank you.
Grade: A (if you eat it daily)
Grade: B (if you eat it once in a while)
4. Kombucha, Probiotic Waters, and Drinking Vinegars
These three beverages are practically the same when it comes to probiotics. Although many kombucha lovers will try to convince you that it’s a miracle drink (and hey, we're big fans too), its probiotic makeup is on the same level as other bacterial beverages on the market. They aren't bad sources; they just aren't the highest.
KeVita makes sparkling probiotic drinks, drinking vinegars, and kombucha, all of which contain four billion cultures and four strains of probiotics. Many other companies have started adding probiotics to low-cal flavored waters: Suja Probiotic Water contains just 10 calories, 1 gram of sugar, two billion cultures, and one strain of probiotics.
While these drinks may be delicious and hydrating, research suggests that the low culture count and lack of varying strains means that they may not make a big difference to your microbiome makeup.
5. Baking Mix
Some companies have thought of everything. Enjoy Life Foods now has packaged mixes for brownies, muffins, pancakes, waffles and pizza crusts with probiotics right in the mixture. While we applaud these tasty baking starters for their lack of scary ingredients, like hydrogenated corn oil or artificial colorings, the mixes contain only one strain of probiotics, and the culture count is missing from the package. It’s also well-known that bacteria cannot survive in extremely hot temperatures (we're talking about your oven).