Are Fermented Foods the same as Probiotics?

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Both fermented foods and probiotics have gained a lot of popularity and interest in recent years surrounding their benefits related to gut health.  Many people may view fermented foods and probiotics as the same, but in fact they are not.  Read on to learn more about the important differences between fermented foods and probiotics.     

To help understand the differences between fermented foods and probiotics, let’s first look at the definitions of both.

What are Probiotics?

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) defines probiotics as, “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host” (C. Hill et al. 2014).  So, probiotics are considered ‘good’ bacteria that can provide a benefit to our health when adequate amounts are consumed. 

Probiotics are identified by their specific strain, which includes the genus, the species, the subspecies (if applicable), and a strain designation.  For example, the probiotic Bifidobacterium animalis lactis DN-173 010 consists of:

GenusSpeciesSubspeciesStrain Designation
BifidobacteriumanimalislactisDN-173 010

Each specific probiotic strain has been studied and each strain provides a very specific and unique health benefit.  For example, reducing antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

You can find probiotics in supplement form or added to certain foods like yogurts or kefirs. 

What are Fermented Foods?

Fermented foods and beverages can be defined as, “Foods made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components” (M. Marco et al. 2021)

Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years.  Historically, fermentation was used as a method of food preservation and to improve taste or texture, however, in recent years fermented foods have been gaining in popularity due to potential benefits related to health.

Though there are many in vitro and animal model studies investigating the health benefits of some fermented foods for gut health; there is limited clinical evidence in humans of the health benefits from the array of fermented foods, with the exception of yogurt and other cultured dairy products.

While probiotics must consist of live microbes when you consume them; fermented foods may or may not contain live microbes when you consume them.  All fermented foods contain live microbes which carry out the fermentation, however, after fermentation some foods undergo processes that remove or destroy the live microbes such as baking, roasting, heating, pasteurization or filtration.

Fermented foods that DO contain live microorganisms when you consume them include foods such as:  Fermented foods that DO NOT contain live microorganisms when you consume them include foods such as:  

Uncooked fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut
Most kombuchas  
Sourdough Bread
Cooked or pasteurized fermented vegetables and some kombuchas
Wine, most beers and distilled spirits
Coffee and chocolate beans (after roasting)  
Adapted from: The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on fermented foods, 2021

So, now that we have looked at what are probiotics and fermented foods; let’s further examine and summarize some specific criteria to understand important distinctions between probiotics and fermented foods:

CriteriaProbioticFermented Food

Documented evidence for strain-specific health benefit from a clinical study
Not Required  
Microbes present in the product until the end of shelf-life:
Must be alive
Must be at levels demonstrated to provide health benefit

Microbe specific strain defined (includes genus, species, subspecies (if applicable), and strain designation)
Not Required  

-The final fermented food may or may not have live microbes present, depending on the processing used.
-Fermented foods may often contain various undefined strains of microbes, usually at variable or unknown levels, and their potential health benefits may not yet be demonstrated.

Genome sequence of microbes available
RequiredNot Required

Safe for intended use
Adapted from: The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on fermented foods, 2021  

Now that we have summarized some specific criteria which highlights important differences between probiotics and fermented foods; there is one further area to touch on, which is probiotic fermented foods. 

Probiotic fermented foods are fermented foods that contain probiotics.  Certain foods like some yogurts and some kefirs can be classified as probiotic fermented foods as the microbes in these fermented foods meet the criteria (as outlined in the chart above) to be considered a probiotic. 

Remember, just because fermented foods contain live cultures, these cultures may not meet the criteria of a probiotic, and therefore the product would not be classified as a probiotic fermented food. So, in other words, while some fermented foods contain live cultures; these live cultures do not yet have scientifically proven health benefits or they may be at unknown levels and therefore do not qualify as a probiotic.

It’s important to read the label and fermented foods should list the probiotic specific strain including the genus, species, subspecies (if applicable), and strain designation – telling you indeed the fermented food contains probiotics.

Take Away:

  • To help determine what’s best for you, it’s always important to discuss your specific health concerns with your healthcare professional and work with them if you’re looking to include specific fermented foods or probiotics to help with a specific condition

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