If My Probiotic Lifestyle was a religion, then the different probiotics would be the various Churches. So given that all Churches operate under Christianity, are they the same? If you pose this question to a staunch Christian, the answer will most likely be a definite no! But if you pose the same query to a Buddhist or a Muslim, the answer could easily be a yes. So it is all a matter of perspective. What about probiotics? Are all probiotics created equal? Or are some churches (sorry, probiotics) better than others?
All probiotics are not equal, but they work towards a similar goal of replenishing the gut with beneficial bacteria. The variations in the quality and stature of probiotic supplements are determined by important factors such as the specific strain used, the storage temperature, the CFU count, and the bacteria’s ability to survive the stomach environment among other things. The FDA does not automatically categorize probiotics as “regulatory” products, and consumers should be naturally cynical about the claims of probiotic manufacturers.
Probiotics have come a long way in a short time. I would like to think that I am an OG when it comes to probiotics. For instance, I was still shopping for probiotics when about 90% of the probiotics on sale required refrigeration. Nowadays, very few probiotic supplements require this manner of strenuous handling. I also remember buying supplements with organisms that would not survive just eight hours of shipping. Imagine the pain of spending $50 on probiotics only for you to pop a pill that is full of dead organisms everyday for a whole 30 or even 60 days?
No wonder probiotics have such a bad reputation…
So even if the probiotic technology has changed dramatically in the last 8 years, the research still lags behind. I started this blog partly because I realized that some of the “authoritative” information I was getting from the internet about probiotics dates as far back as six years ago. Six years is a lifetime when it comes to how much information and technology about probiotics has changed.
Probiotic Quality- Why It Matters
The entry-level requirements for any product willing to be classified as a “probiotic” food supplement is quite low. A manufacturer only has to prove that their product consists of live bacteria that can be safely consumed by humans. However, there are no limitations or requirements concerning the count, quality, type, or strength of these live bacteria.
By law, those who are selling you probiotics cannot claim that their products treat a specific illness because they will have to provide solid proof as per the FDA guidelines. However, there is a loophole that allows the manufacturers to make “general” claims about the benefits of probiotics. For example, most probiotics promise to “improve digestive health”, without getting deeper into the specifics. So most people will obviously tell you that their probiotic is the best…whilst denying you the much-needed details about what makes their items stand out.
So from an independent research perspective, what makes some probiotics more equal than others?
All Probiotic Supplements Are Not the Same
The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics defines probiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”. Probiotics are mainly made up of bacteria, but they might occasionally include yeasts. Probiotic-bacteria is also found naturally in some foods, especially in fermented products. However, these foods are not always sold as probiotics. Notably, not all probiotic bacteria have confirmed health benefits.
For any product to qualify being called a probiotic, it has to be made with the specific intention to supplement gut microbiota in human beings, it has to meet certain safety standards, and it has to have the potential to multiply and possibly colonize the gut.
Strains…Different Probiotics Have Different Strains
According to the National Institute of Health Factsheet on Probiotics, the seven core genus of probiotics include Lactobacillus, Saccharomyces, Bifidobacterium, Streptococcus, Escherichia, Enterococcus, and Bacillus. Each of these genus of bacteria contains a host of species that are further categorized into different strains of probiotics. The number of species of probiotics run into hundreds, while the strains number in the thousands.
The genus of probiotics mainly determines where it is likely to colonize in the body, such as the colon, small intestines, the throat, and the vagina. However, research on probiotics is often centered on specific strains. Each strain has to be investigated for its specific health and wellness benefits.
Therefore, when considering which probiotics are more equal than others, one important consideration is the amount of research that is available for each specific strain of probiotics. Some strains have achieved more validity than others due to the amount of research that is available to back up their health-based claims.
If you are new to probiotics, you should always start with the more “popular” strains before venturing into the ones that are considered more “experimental”. However, just because a certain strain of probiotics has not been studied adequately does not mean that it is automatically inferior. If you do not have a problem with being a probiotic lab rat like me, feel free to roll the dice. After all, experimenting with probiotics comes with very low risks.
My Probiotic Lifestyle exists to expound the research on probiotics and urge individuals like me and you to experiment where necessary…while giving publicly available feedback. Every time I take a new probiotic supplement, I make sure to take note of the constituent strains and also keep a journal on its possible health impacts.
The probiotics that you buy come in either single strains or multi-strains. Some of them will promise you upwards of five different strains in one product. Single strains often target a specific health problem and they are often cheaper than multi-strains. Multi-strains are thought to be better because each particular strain comes with its own advantages. They are also ideal for people who have not yet pinpointed the exact problem that they are looking to solve through probiotics. Remember, if you are looking to repopulate the gut with all manner of beneficial bacteria. Multi-strains are a good starting point for a would-be probiotic connoisseur. The more the merrier, right?
The Probiotic’s CFU Count…Numbers Matter
CFU stands for colony forming units. When you see this number on the packaging of a probiotic supplement, it represents the possible number of organisms that will colonize your gut after you ingest it. In the past, these numbers used to be between 50 million and a 100 million. However, the modern probiotic industry is quite progressive and you will most-likely be seeing 1 billion, 5 billion, 25 billion, and 50 billion a lot.
A probiotic with a high CFU count is a good bet and it should be good value for money. After all, success is a number’s game. However, CFU count is only one among various quality indicators as far as probiotic quality is concerned. Nevertheless, all factors considered, a probiotic with a CFU count of more than one billion is of good quality. However, you will encounter some offering as many as 70 billion CFUs. Of course, the number of CFUs is greatly related to the cost of the probiotics.
Personally, I have had to make do with low CFUs (1-10 billion) because they are affordable to a long term user like me. However, you can be sure that when I get my hands on a 70 billion CFU, you will hear all about it.
Potency…How Well Can Probiotics Stay Alive?
Probiotics are life. This statement is not an exaggeration because probiotics are only useful if they contain live microorganisms in them. What’s more, these microorganisms have to stay alive enclosed in a capsule, sachet, or a bottle for long time before they are finally consumed. Sometimes, for more than two years. Some probiotics stay alive for a longer duration than others, they can survive harsh storage and shipment conditions in large numbers, and they can withstand drastic temperature changes.
Like I had mentioned earlier, my experiences with probiotics date back to the times when almost all of them required refrigeration. Since then, the probiotic industry has come up with various ways of ensuring that organisms in the supplement can stay alive until they are consumed. The most common method of ensuring potency is to put microbes in the supplements on stand-by-mode by freeze-drying them. The metabolic activities in these microbes will only be triggered when they are in the right conditions, such as those in the gut environment.
Overall, the preservation of microbes in a probiotic supplement is determined by the level of water activity on a scale of 0 to 1. At 0 there is no water activity, but at 1 there is pure water activity. Most probiotic supplements have a water activity of less than 0.2, which helps to keep the microbes in a dormant state.
On the other hand, probiotics in liquids such as yoghurts and juices among other products are preserved for long periods of time by being kept at low temperatures and in a possible acidic environment. These are the more traditional probiotics that require refrigeration. However, probiotic microbes in a liquid environment often require higher CFU counts because their rates of survival are lower.
Probiotics that are preserved through freeze-drying and then put in a good package that does not expose them to the elements are most-likely easier to deal with than the ones that require refrigeration. Most brands will proudly announce this advantage in their packages: “Does not require refrigeration”! In case you want to learn more on probiotic survival rates, this article by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) offers more information.
Efficiency…How Well Can Probiotics Survive the Stomach Environment?
Your hopes and dreams are that any probiotic that you buy has the capacity to reach the gut, colonize it, and multiply in billions. This goal requires the microorganisms that you ingest to be able to survive a variety of stomach juices. Some probiotic strains have better abilities to survive the gastric acids, pancreatic juices, and bile excretions. For instance, the most resistant probiotic types are the ones that contain Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Enterococcus.
Most probiotic makers also use various methods and technologies in order to increase the organisms’ chances of survival within the gut environment. One strategy involves adding prebiotic fibers to the supplements or use of special capsules that only break down after the supplements reach the small or large intestines.
Information about a supplement’s special ability to colonize the gut is often volunteered by the manufacturer, and in most cases you will find it indicated on the packaging or as part of other product details. As a probiotic lifestylist, you will want to test these claims and maybe test and compare different products.
So are all probiotics the same? Well, we started with the example of churches. The thing is, the best church is the one you go to or you know.
The best probiotic is the one that has helped you achieve your health goals. However, it is important to keep all the above factors in mind when thinking about what makes some probiotics better than others.
I am still agitating for cheaper probiotics because, their cost is one of the most limiting factors when you are looking for a good option. The cost of probiotics is also a big problem for individuals from the lower economic classes, and they happen to need them the most. However, I encourage people to leave honest reviews whenever they purchase a probiotic. I encourage this because I have noticed that some of the probiotic supplements that are offered at cheap prices are doing better than some of the more expensive ones.