Clarifying Probiotic Misconceptions

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While probiotics have been gaining in popularity in recent years due to benefits related to health, there are also some misconceptions that have formed.  Read on to learn fact from fiction!

First off, let’s revisit the definition for probiotics:

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 some misconceptions for probiotics?

  • Probiotics will permanently change your gut microbiota – the community of trillions of microorganisms residing in your intestine that take part in many important functions such as digestion and defence, making them vital to your health and wellbeing.  
    • This is a misconception as probiotics do not stay in the gut.  Think of probiotics as visitors of the gut – they do their job and then they pass through. It can also take up to four weeks to notice a difference and show beneficial results.  
  • Any probiotic will help
    • This is a misconception as probiotics are strain specific.  Each strain has been clinically studied and each strain provides a very specific and unique health benefit.  For example, managing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, bloating and gas.  The Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products Available in Canada  is a helpful tool to assist clinicians and consumers in understanding which probiotics have evidence for a specific indication.
  • All yogurts have probiotics
    • This is a misconception as not all yogurts have probiotics.  It is important to read food labels to determine if the yogurt contains probiotics.  Look at the label and the active probiotic culture specific strain will be listed, which includes the genus, the species, the subspecies (if applicable), and a strain designation.  Some probiotics can also use a trademarked name.  Also look for one billion CFUs (colony forming units) per 100 gram serving.  CFUs is the number of alive and active microorganisms in one serving. The health benefit will also be stated.  For example, probiotic that contributes to healthy gut flora.
  • All fermented foods have probiotics
    • This is a misconception.  While probiotics must contain 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.  Furthermore, even if fermented foods contain live cultures when you consume them, these cultures may not yet have scientifically proven health benefits, or they may be at unknown levels, or the microbe specific strain has not yet been defined and therefore do not qualify as a probiotic.
    • So, some fermented foods may likely contain beneficial strains, it’s just the strains have not yet been defined, they have not yet been studied to show evidence of a health benefit and the levels are variable or unknown, so these fermented foods are not considered a probiotic.
    • There is however one exception – probiotic fermented foods – which 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 to be considered 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.

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