You may have heard lately about the health benefits of probiotics or good bacteria. Experts have been telling us for years that we need to avoid bacteria. Now they are saying that they are good for you? It turns out that our bodies are teaming with over 100 trillion bacteria, outnumbering our body’s cells by 10 to 1. These microorganisms play an important role in our health. Let’s take a closer look at probiotics and what we know about them.

What are probiotics?

bacteria-400pxProbiotics are live microorganisms that when eaten provide a health benefit. Probiotics should not be confused with prebiotics, which may also provide health benefits. Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates found in bananas, whole grains, garlic and other whole foods, that help to promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms. I think of prebiotics as the food for the probiotics.

It is important to note that while microorganisms are present in other foods such as beer, cheese, and sauerkraut, not all of these are considered probiotics. Remember, to be considered a probiotic, the microorganism must have health benefits proven with research studies. Just because a food product says that it contains live, active cultures does not mean that they are probiotics.

Why are probiotics good for you?

There is a lot of new research about the health benefits of probiotics. There is strong evidence that suggests that probiotics can help to ease side effects associated with using antibiotics. In fact, many doctors and hospitals are recommending patients take probiotics along with antibiotics to reduce the incidence of hospital infections.  There is also good evidence that probiotic use could help people suffering from the discomforts of lactose intolerance.

Additionally, scientists have found a relationship between increased immunity and probiotics. Some studies have shown a promising reduction in sick days, antibiotic use, and clinic visits among people who regularly consume probiotics. This may be due to the role that probiotics play in telling or signaling the cell pathways that help to fight infection. Probiotics compete with harmful bacteria for nutrients. More research is needed, but there is encouraging evidence that probiotics might help to keep you from getting sick.

Where can you find probiotics?

Probiotic labelThe global probiotics market is expected to reach $32.6 billion in 2014. This includes food products like yogurt, kefir, cheese, and kombucha along with dietary supplements. When choosing products, look for the manufacturer list of the amounts of the specific microorganisms that can be found in the product. Amounts are usually listed as colony forming units or CFUs.

There are several advantages to picking food over supplements. The first is that probiotic foods often contain beneficial nutrients. For instance, dairy products are also a good source of calcium and protein. Check out the everything you need to know about yogurt post by my fellow intern Stephanie. Also, while both probiotic foods and supplements provide health benefits, evidence shows that more of the probiotics survive the digestion process when eaten in food. This ensures that they can reach the area in the gut where they are most beneficial.

Keep in mind that heating probiotics will kill most of the microorganisms. Foods like the fermented vegetables kimchi and sauerkraut are made using probiotics but these are often killed during the pasteurization process.  Tempeh and miso are also often made with probiotics. Just be aware that most of the probiotics will not survive cooking temperatures.

The Bottom Line

There is not enough evidence at this time to develop dietary guidelines or public health recommendations for probiotics. However, promising research is available that demonstrates health benefits. With the added bonus of the other beneficial components of fermented foods like yogurt and kefir, these can be a healthy addition to your diet.


  1. California Dairy Research Foundation. US Probiotics. Published 2011. Accessed December 12, 2014.
  2. Douglas L, Sanders M. Probiotics and prebiotics in dietetics practice. J Am Diet Assoc. 2008;108:510-521.
  3. Homayoni Rad A, Vaghef Mehrabany E, Alipoor B, Vaghef Mehrabany L. The Comparison of food and supplement as probiotic delivery vehicles. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. August 2014; doi:10.1080/10408398.2012.733894
  4. Martindale, R. Gut microbiota and health: Food fad or bacterial therapy? (pdf) Published 2013. Accessed December 12, 2014.
  5. PR Newswire. Markets and markets: Global probiotics market worth US$32.6 billion by 2014. Published January 13, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2014.
  6. Sanders M. How do we know when something called “probiotic” is really a probiotic? A guideline for consumers and health care professionals. (pdf) Functional Food Reviews. 2009;1(1):3-12.
  7. Sanders M, Lenoir-Wijnkoop I, Salminen S, et al. Probiotics and prebiotics: prospects for public health and nutritional recommendations. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2014;1309:19-29.

Comments are closed.