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Your digestive tract is home to a population of microorganisms numbering in the trillions. The good bacterial strains that live in your gut--also known as your gut microbiome--play a key role in the proper functioning of everything from your immune system to your metabolism. Supporting your gut microbiome by introducing good bacteria into your digestive system is one of the best ways to support your body's overall health.
Called probiotics, these beneficial bacterial strains can be found in a number of sources, but two in particular stand out thanks to their popularity: yogurt and probiotic supplements. Both can help augment your body's existing good bacteria population, and adding either to your daily routine is better than nothing. Head-to-head, however, is there an effective difference between eating yogurt and taking a probiotic supplement when it comes to introducing a broad range of probiotics to your body?
In short, yes: a probiotic supplement is more effective than yogurt at providing the optimal numbers and variety of probiotics--and here's why.
Why Yogurt Falls Short
While a delicious addition to any diet, yogurt simply can't compete with the best probiotic supplements for women, men and children. There are a number of factors that cause this dairy product to come up short in delivering both high numbers of probiotics and the right probiotic strains to benefit your digestive tract.
For starters, only a few types of probiotics naturally occur in yogurt. These strains--Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Streptococcus Thermophilus--do provide certain health benefits, of course. However, with more than 500 different strains of probiotics in existence, your daily yogurt will fall far short of providing you with the complete range of potentially-beneficial bugs.
Moreover, even to the extent that the strains of naturally-occurring probiotics in yogurt are beneficial, your yogurt may simply not contain enough of it to be helpful. In reviewing the current body of scientific research on the subject, one group of researchers at the University of Toronto found that many of the studies that touted yogurt's benefits were funded by the food industry itself and utilized probiotic doses that were as much as 25 times the amount actually contained in yogurt.
That's another key drawback of relying on yogurt as a probiotic source: you're going to need to eat a lot of it. Many studies have been conducted to investigate the effects of yogurt consumption directly on conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). What isn't necessarily apparent from the often-positive results of these studies, however, is that participants needed to eat yogurt two or three times every day in order to see any positive probiotic benefits. Unless you enjoy yogurt with every meal, that's a lot of yogurt!
Probiotics and Yogurt
Finally, while some yogurts are probiotic-rich, many yogurts on the market contain no active probiotic strains at all. Many of the pasteurization and sterilization processes that commercially-available yogurt is subjected to kills all the live microorganisms that otherwise naturally occur in yogurt. Even when yogurt does contain live probiotics, the particular type of starter culture used to produce the yogurt can have a huge effect on how many active probiotic strains survive until you take that first bite. A study conducted by researchers at California Polytechnic State University found that the number of viable probiotic strains in different yogurts can be reduced exponentially if certain starter cultures are used.
In other words, you shouldn't assume that the yogurt you're eating contains probiotics. Some yogurt brands (voluntarily) label their yogurts with the National Yogurt Association's "Live Active Culture" seal, which indicates that the yogurt has a minimum level of live lactic acid bacteria--but this seal isn't required to be used, and even when it is, the numbers and variety of probiotics in the yogurt can still be insufficient to confer all the potential health benefits.
Add this to the fact that many yogurt varieties contain high amounts of high fructose corn syrup, processed sugar and other less-than-healthy ingredients and it becomes clear: eat yogurt as a treat but take a probiotic supplement for your health.
What to Look For in Your Probiotic Supplement
While taking a probiotic supplement can be more effective than yogurt at introducing a wide variety of beneficial bacterial strains into your digestive system, keep in mind that not all supplements are created equal. Your probiotic supplement can beat yogurt's probiotic benefits if you pick one that displays certain key characteristics.
To start with, the number of live bacterial strains contained in the supplement is obviously a key factor in its efficacy. The bare minimum number of bacteria needed to be considered effective is 1 billion colony forming units (also known as CFUs) per day. If the supplement you're considering doesn't list the number of CFUs it contains, there's reason for concern: testing company ConsumerLab.com found that many of the probiotic supplements they tested that did not specify their CFUs contained live bacteria numbering in just the thousands, far too little be effective.
The specific types of bacteria contained in the supplement is also important, as different strains can help with different health concerns. For example, Lactobacillus acidophilus has been shown to reduce cholesterol, while Lactobacillus plantarum has proven effective in reducing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Other strains have been shown to improve immune function, reduce inflammation, combat the effects of diarrhea, and more. Finding a supplement that contains the right balance of strains to address your particular health issues is key to getting the biggest benefit from your probiotic.
The delivery system that a probiotic supplement uses is equally important as the number and variety of live cultures the supplement contains. Why? It's simple: while many supplements cite the number of organisms they contain at the point when they were manufactured, this number is meaningless if the supplement's delivery system doesn't protect the strains from the harsh environment of your stomach. Without a proper delivery system, many types of beneficial bacteria are killed off by your stomach acids before they can reach your intestinal tract and start to colonize your gut. This is why the number of viable microorganisms that your supplement can introduce to your gut microbiome is the key number to consider.
For many people, other factors can be a consideration when choosing a probiotic that may not directly influence the supplement's effectiveness but can increase the likelihood that they'll be able to maintain it as part of their daily routine. For example, many people have trouble swallowing large capsules; finding a probiotic supplement in tablet form may be more palatable. Similarly, the presence of unnecessary additives is increasingly concerning to many consumers; if this is you, take a look to see if the probiotic supplement you're consider contains ingredients such as gluten, soy or GMOs.
Lastly, some probiotic supplements must be refrigerated to keep their strains alive, while others are shelf-stable at room temperature; if you can't reliably keep your probiotic refrigerated until you take it, the former is not for you. Remember: your probiotic supplement is more effective than a cup of yogurt, but only if you take it on a daily basis.
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Hungin APS, Chang L, Locke GR et al. Irritable bowel Syndrome in the United States: Prevalence, symptoms patterns and impact. Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2005;21:1365–1375.
Scourboutakos, M.J.; Franco-Arellano, B.; Murphy, S.A.; Norsen, S.; Comelli, E.M.; L’Abbé, M.R. Mismatch between Probiotic Benefits in Trials versus Food Products. Nutrients 2017, 9, 400.