Food plays a huge role in our microbiome’s health. As you learn more and more about the gut, you may want to do everything you can to try and keep it healthy. In most cases, this means managing the bacteria that you have inside you in order to try and keep things balance and close to a healthy, natural state.
There’s a lot of hype surrounding an entire category of foods that supposedly meet this need—fermented foods. But is it worth using these when probiotic supplements are there? Read on to learn the difference.
Breaking Down the Difference Between Fermented and Probiotic Foods
The difference is simple. Fermented does not equal probiotic. Not all fermented foods contain probiotics. While both have living organisms that can interact with those inside our bodies, not all fermented foods are probiotic foods. In addition, not every probiotic out there takes the form of a fermented food.
What Are Fermented Foods?
How does this play out? Like any other organism, bacteria need certain food to live. When vegetables are soaked in salt water or their own juices, bacteria start to grow. These bacteria feed off of the sugars in the vegetable. This produces lactic acid.
This combination of salt and lactic acid is what makes the difference between a fermented vegetable and a rotten one. Bacteria that are harmful to us can’t survive in these conditions, leaving only “good bacteria.” The end result of fermentation is three main things:
- The death of harmful bacteria.
- The presence of “good bacteria.”
- A large amount of lactic acid. This provides the distinct smells and tastes of fermented foods.
It’s important to note that not all fermented foods necessarily have the bacteria that makes them good for you. For example, beer and wine are fermented, but have specific steps designed to remove the living organisms, getting a desired cooking result, but not what we are looking for. Sometimes, packaging may have a similar effect, like canned sauerkraut or baked bread.
Even for those foods that do meet the requirement of living organisms, like kimchi, yogurt, or cheeses, may need a little bit more scientific study before comparing them directly to probiotics. Here are some potential benefits from what studies we do have:
- Heart support
- Digestive support
- Immune support
- Glucose regulation
- Help with allergic reactions1
- Brain support2
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are a type of bacteria that exist within the body, in many areas including the mouth, stomach, and colon. This may sound a bit unnerving at first, but is a natural part of the body and how it functions. In fact, human cells in the body are outnumbered by microorganisms at a 10 to 1 ratio.3 All these microorganisms, including types of probiotics in the body together are our microbiome, a sort of mini-ecosystem in our body. No microbiome is the same, even with identical twins.
We mentioned before how a microbiome is similar to an ecosystem like any forest or lake near your home. This starts as a blank slate when we are in the womb. After birth, it changes when we come into contact with various microbes. In particular, our diets play a role. Much scientific study has shown that the gut microbiome plays an important role in how we digest our food and process nutrients.4
This is the role of probiotic supplements. They bring balance back to the body’s ecosystem by reintroducing good bacteria. Studies have shown that this can help deal with common digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome. This is only scratching the surface of the potential of probiotics. Other possible effects include improved immunity, allergies, and even improvements in mood.5 In some cases, certain probiotics are a good match for certain groups, like expecting mothers. After all, if microbes are in all parts of the body, it stands to reason that introducing the best bacteria could stand to improve a number of different systems.
Fermented foods are very popular, as there may be other potential health applications for them. In addition, there are examples of fermented foods that are probiotic foods. For example, certain yogurt cultures have probiotic activity. In addition, you can always add probiotic cultures and supplements to certain meals for a do-it-yourself solution. Ultimately, with a doctor’s okay, you can use both these items to work towards a healthier gut and beyond.