If you’ve been to the vitamin and supplement section of your local store at some point within the last few years, you’ve probably seen various products called probiotics. Maybe you know of someone who has taken them, or you may have even taken them yourself. Probiotics are an often misunderstood product. Like everything else, there is a lot of marketing around them, and most people don’t completely know what the claims the products are making mean. Let’s try and break some things down and help you better understand them
What even are probiotics? They are live microorganisms that populate your GI tract! Usually probiotic supplements are made up of bacteria, yeast, and sometimes fibers called prebiotics that help ferment and grow the probiotic organisms. Probiotics are often measures as CFUs, or Colony Forming Units. This just describes how many active organisms are in each serving of the probiotic. When it comes to this, however, more isn’t always better! Despite what marketing would make you believe, having more CFUs does not make the product work better. In fact, it’s more important to focus on the actual strains than the amount.
For example, it doesn’t matter if you have 1 billion or 10 billion CFUs of a certain organism if it’s not the right strain for you. If that specific bacterium has only been shown to help with diarrhea, then it’s probably not going to help you if you’re taking the probiotic to relieve constipation.
Let’s take a second to talk about probiotic terminology. Since probiotics are organisms, they have a genus and a species – just like humans are homo sapiens. The major genus that you will seen in probiotics are Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Bacillus. Within each genus are different species. For example, you may see Bifidobacterium longus or Bifidobacterium animalis.
One key thing to look for when choosing probiotics is a strain designation. This is usually shown as letter or numbers following the genus and species. In studies that look at microorganisms and their impact on health, scientists are looking at very precise organisms. There are many different strains of certain genus and species. And regardless of if an organism has the same genus and species, their benefits can be different based on their strain. Some examples of strains include Lactobacillus Rhamnosus GG, Lactobacillus acidophilus CL1285, Saccharomyces boulardii CNCM I-745.
Remember, the benefits of probiotics are strain specific. Each strain has different effects on your body, so when looking for a probiotic, you want to look for ones that have been shown to help with whatever problem you are looking to fix.
When it comes to shopping for probiotics, here is what I recommend looking for:
- It needs to include the strain designation. If it doesn’t, I don’t know which one is in the product and thus I don’t feel like it’s worth my money.
- Watch out for “proprietary blends.” That’s just a fancy way of saying it’s a company’s “secret recipe” and unless they specify how much of each organism is in the blend, then there is no way of knowing how much of each you are getting. And oftentimes, if you reach out to ask a company how much of each is in their blend, they won’t tell you. That’s a big red flag to me as a consumer!
- If a company can show on their website the research they used for their products. This one is going to be harder to do if you’re just casually browsing for a product to try, but if you are looking to invest some money into it, it’s best to check if they can back up what they are selling.
This website can help you identify which strain best addresses your needs. When in doubt, reach out to your favorite dietitians here at New Leaf Nutrition® to help you chose the probiotic that’s right for you!
-Alex Harris, MA, RD, LD, CPT