Gut health is a top trend in #wellness that has resulted in many of us buying more probiotics and fermented foods.
But what are they and do they provide any health benefits?
Firstly, let’s clear up the misunderstanding that all fermented foods are probiotics- this is not the case. Fermented foods are produced by controlled microbial growth, while probiotics are products containing live microorganisms that have promoted health benefits when consumed. The key difference is that all probiotics contain live microorganisms, while fermented foods may not contain live microorganisms when consumed.
Probiotics are thought to provide health benefits by improving our gut bacteria or flora. Our gut bacteria is important for health, and can become unbalanced for a number of reasons, including taking antibiotics, having a gut illness (E.G. IBS, Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis), having surgery on the gut, following a bought of gastroenteritis and as we age. There is good evidence that probiotics can help in these circumstances to get our gut bacteria back in balance.
Generally, probiotics are taken in liquid or capsule form, and as such have a controlled about of bacteria per dose. However, some foods contain probiotics too.
It is thought that fermented foods can also have an impact on our gut flora; however, the evidence for fermented foods providing health benefits is limited. There is some emerging evidence to suggest that sourdough bread and kefir, a fermented milk drink, do provide health benefits for the gut, and other fermented products such as miso and sauerkraut may provide benefits too. There is no notable evidence to support health benefits from kombucha or tempeh.
It is worth noting that there is a lot of variability between studies on fermented foods, mostly due to there being significant variability between recipes and preparation of these foods.
Although there may be some benefit to consuming fermented foods, I wouldn’t recommend relying on eating more fermented foods to improve your gut health. The evidence is still very limited and emerging.
So, how do I tell whether a food is a probiotic or fermented food?
Because probiotics contain LIVE bacteria, foods that have been baked, pasteurised or cooked will not be probiotic.
Fermented foods can be easier to spot and taste, but the following are actually NOT fermented: brined pickles, olives and most soy sauces.
Yogurt containing probiotics will say "live" or "active" on the label, otherwise it is not a probiotic yogurt.
Overall, when we look at the research on gut health, it would actually be most sensible for us all to try to include more fibre in our diets than worry about any of these food trends. However, you could try a suitable probiotic if you have a specific need and eat fermented foods if you enjoy them!