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Probiotics: from Food or from Supplements?

Probiotics: from Food or from Supplements?


The value of probiotics is well-known: they can improve many aspects of human health when taken regularly. However, there is a lot of uncertainty and disagreement about the best way to take them. Should you buy (expensive) pills and supplements? Should you shop for foods that are specifically made with probiotics? Or should you simply make your own fermented foods and trust that the probiotics you need are there?

There are studies that have been done on many different probiotic micro-organisms, showing that they can be beneficial for many different conditions, including irritable bowel disorder (IBD), colon disorders and asthma. However, the vast majority of these studies used a single specific organism as the probiotic.

Unfortunately, only a very few studies have looked at raw foods with wild ferments to determine their impact.
So, what can I say about that? If you have a specific condition that you are hoping to treat with probiotics, you should look for the organisms–and the specific strains of those organisms–that have been clinically shown to affect that condition. However, if you are looking at probiotics to generally improve your health and well-being, then using homemade fermented foods is a better option for most people.

Why have there been so few studies on the probiotic benefits of fermented foods? It’s obvious to me: firstly, this is how science works; by removing as many variables as possible, we can determine a cause-and-effect relationship. In other words, by using only a single strain of probiotic organism in a clinical trial, any positive effect seen must be the result of that organism. Imagine how different it would be if we tried a combination of 20 different organisms–we wouldn’t know which one it was! There is also a lot of variability in traditional ferments: your sauerkraut may contain different organisms than mine does!

But the second reason this happens has more to do with money. The use of a single strain of an organism can potentially be patented, and then sold. If I can show that a particular strain of organism treats, say, colitis, then I can market that organism as a probiotic, manufacture it, and sell it as a supplement. How many researchers are making money selling raw sauerkraut?

There are a few (poorly-funded) scientists out there who are studying the impacts of traditionally fermented foods, but not very many. Some of these foods have indeed been shown to have positive effects on health, but the studies are often not high quality and may not apply to the foods you make at home.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, though. Although this type of evidence is considered low-quality, it is still evidence that needs to be considered. I know dozens of people who swear by the positive changes in their health after introducing home-fermented foods to their diet. These may not be controlled, double-blinded experiments with placebos, but who knows your body better than you do?

I believe that when we eat a variety of fermented foods containing different kinds of organisms, that we are encouraging an entire community of beneficial organisms to grow in our guts and on our bodies. They may not all be highly beneficial, but some of them will be. When you add in the huge cost savings that come from making your own fermented foods as compared to buying probiotics from the health food store, I believe that the choice is obvious: Make your own probiotics!

Joel Stryker