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Wellness Club

Probiotics: Supplements vs. Fermented Foods


By Taylor Davis


Probiotics are strands of healthy bacteria that play an important role in the overall health of your gut (also known as your “second brain”). Regulating mood, boosting your immune system, decreasing inflammation, removing toxins, and assisting with both digestion and metabolism are some of the profound functions of probiotics. 


For quite a long time I was paying between $40-70 on probiotic supplements each month. Although an expensive habit, I thought the benefits outweighed the cost. I had a loose understanding of what probiotics were and where they came from. Based on the high price point, I was admittedly tricked into thinking these supplements were the most effective approach for maintaining a healthy level of gut flora. However, about a year ago I came across a “brine juice” in a health food store that was made from fermented vegetables, claiming to have a much larger count of bacteria than any bottle of probiotic supplements that I was used to taking. I started to do some reading on the effectiveness of probiotics in supplement form versus fermented foods and was surprised at what I found.


For one, fermented foods are far more potent than probiotic supplements. To give you an idea, 2 ounces of sauerkraut has more probiotics than 100 capsules. 4-6 ounces of fermented vegetables has around 10 trillion bacteria, compared to the average probiotic supplement that contains around 10 billion. In general, the diversity of microorganisms present in fermented foods are far greater than those in supplements. 


In terms of the price point, fermented foods are shockingly cheaper than supplements. You can typically buy a jar of fermented vegetables, or a brine, for $7-8, which can last you about a month. A bottle of probiotic supplements lasts around 30 days and ranges anywhere from $35- $100. Comparing the amount of bacteria present in each jar to the amount that’s in a bottle of probiotic supplements, you’re undoubtedly saving way more money.


It was interesting to also learn that the delivery method influences the effectiveness of the bacteria. For example, consuming foods with probiotics in them increases how many beneficial bacteria survive the acidic environment in your stomach. Fermented foods also contain beneficial enzymes in them that help you absorb nutrients more easily. When you ferment foods that have phytic acid in them (like nuts, seeds, and legumes), you decrease the physic acid in them and counteract their ability to reduce mineral absorption. 


Scientists at the University of California have said “the benefits of fermented foods are likely greater than the sum of their individual microbial, nutritive, or bioactive components.” It’s easy to forget that when we supplement something, we’re often missing out on other valuable nutrients that are present in the whole food source. For example, fermented foods have different ‘bioactives’ in them that each have their own unique health benefits. Kefir has a bioactive in it called kefiran, which has antibacterial, tumor, and anti-fungal properties. In general, fermented foods have more “superfood benefits” than supplements and are better detoxifiers. 


Last but not least, I discovered that the probiotic supplement market is somewhat unregulated. The only probiotic supplements that are tested for safety and efficacy are ones specifically marketed for a medical condition. If they aren’t, they undergo no testing. Thus, the bacteria count found on the bottles is also quite questionable. 


This served as a reminder for me to be more particular about the brands that I continue to supplement with. More importantly, it brought about the simple realization that supplements are not a substitute for a poor diet. This propelled me to look for ways I could diversify my diet to include more foods I was relying on supplements for. 


Some tips:


- If you’ve never eaten fermented foods, you want to start out really slow to prevent a “healing crisis”. This happens when the bacteria kill off pathogens and the pathogens release toxins when they die, which can cause a really upset stomach. Start with 1 teaspoon of sauerkraut per meal, or half a shot of brine a day.

-Kefir, yogurt, miso, pickle juice, and any fermented vegetables are great sources of probiotics.

-Make sure there’s no vinegar listed on the ingredients because this means they aren’t properly fermented and therefore have no probiotics in them.

-Look for fermented vegetables that say ‘lacto fermented’ or ‘naturally fermented’ and are refrigerated. - Choose raw fermented foods whenever possible as pasteurization can potentially kill beneficial microbes.