Yogurts don’t have enough probiotics to deliver gut health benefits
Yogurts in supermarkets do not contain anywhere near enough probiotics – ‘friendly bacteria’ – to have the health benefits you might be looking for.
That’s the conclusion of a major study from University of Toronto’s Department of Nutritional Sciences. As lead researcher Mary Scourboutakos puts it:
“In some cases, a person would have to eat up to 25 servings of yogurt a day in order to reap the promised benefits, which is completely unrealistic.”
Yet probiotics themselves have been shown to improve:
- Medical inflammatory conditions like irritable bowel syndrome
- Immune function
- and the absorption of nutrients from your diet – which is especially important in the over 60s.
Probiotics can also reduce flatulence, bloating, stomach discomfort, constipation and diarrhoea caused by C difficile or the use of antibiotics.
They may even help reduce depression via the recognised gut-brain pathway.
Probiotics have a good track record of helping clear yeast infections and candida.
Some researchers even claim that certain strains can help with weight management, but the evidence here is limited.
Gut health is vital to a strong immune system
What we can definitely say is that gut health is vital to a strong immune system, because 70% of your immune function is controlled in your gut.
By crowding out bad bacteria – pathogens – probiotics can improve your overall health and, for example, restore gut balance after a course of antibiotics.
Certain strains also prompt enzyme activity which can help neutralise carcinogens and help eradicate the pathogen Helicobacter pylori – which can lead to cancerous ulcers.
All of which explains why the study of the microbiome – your intestinal flora – is now one of the hottest topics in medicine.
Why don’t yogurts deliver these benefits?
The simple fact is that the level or dose of probiotics in most major brands is many times below the level that would benefit you. Or worse – 25 times lower than were in the studies originally conducted by the agro-food giants and on which their claims are based!
Toronto University again:
“Our study (done on 92 supermarket yogurts) showed there’s a gap between the health benefits found in clinical trials and the benefits that consumers can expect to receive from the probiotic food products (yogurts) in the marketplace.”
So which are best for gut health – yogurts or probiotic supplements?
To answer that question, here are some key yogurt and probiotic facts.
Yogurt and probiotic facts
Many yogurts don’t even qualify as probiotics. Virtually all yogurts are made with a combination of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and/or Streptococcus thermophilus, but they are only there to kick-start the fermentation process, NOT in sufficient amounts to be classified as a probiotic food.
So a pack statement ‘made with yogurt cultures’ doesn’t mean it’s going to work like a probiotic. All that means is that the manufacturing process started with live cultures – as it must in order to convert milk to the fermented product yogurt.
Many supermarket yogurts are heat-treated to increase shelf life, but that kills good and bad bacteria alike. So these yogurts don’t even contain live bacteria by the end of their manufacturing process.
Some yogurt manufacturers do add probiotic strains back to their products after sterilisation. In the UK, there are no standards for probiotics, but in the USA, to be called a probiotic food or to claim ‘promotes healthy gut flora’, a yogurt must contain at least one billion live colony-forming units (ie. active probiotic cultures) of at least one recognised probiotic species per serving.
But unlike probiotic supplements, very few yogurts declare a precise level of colony-forming units. So it’s difficult to tell what you are actually getting – and it’s almost certainly less than 1 billion.
The general scientific consensus is that the more good bacteria there are in your gut, the harder it is for bad bacteria to flourish and cause problems. It appears that you need at least 7 billion probiotic bacteria per serving to get a health benefit.This number should be comprised of multiple strains – because different strains colonise in different parts of your gastro-intestinal tract and each has a specific health benefit.
In addition, there is evidence that strains work together to create a beneficial synergistic effect. For example, Bifidobacterium lactis has been shown to have a greater effect when accompanied by Lactobacillus rhamnosus.
Yogurts taste great and are still a valuable source of protein, calcium, magnesium and zinc, so they are a healthy food. Moreover, research published in the specialist Journal Translational Medicine indicates that yogurt does beneficially metabolise starches in fruits, grains and vegetables. But even if they state ‘contains active live cultures’, very few contain enough probiotic cultures in high enough doses to deliver the specific benefits you can achieve with a supplement.
The only caveat to calling yogurts ‘healthy’ is that some brands – especially and unfortunately marketed to homes with children – contain far too much added fructose, corn syrup or sugar, which can actually increase the level of bad bacteria in the gut!
So many yogurts are more of a sweet dessert than a health food. Indeed, Cornucopia, a US food and farm policy research group, found that flavoured varieties of certain brands of yogurt (eg. strawberry) contained no actual fruit, and included total sugars that rival those in a chocolate bar.
Cornucopia have filed a formal complaint against several yogurt companies with the FDA, and women should note that sugars can feed candida.
So: Are probiotic supplements better than yogurt for gut health?
Probiotic supplements don’t include protein or vitamins and minerals. But if you want the health benefits that researchers say a probiotic can deliver, then a probiotic supplement offers a much clearer way to achieve those benefits than a supermarket yogurt.
So the answer is yes.
But there are guidelines for choosing the best probiotic supplement.
1. It should have at least 7 billion ‘colony-forming’ bacteria per capsule.
2. It should have multiple strains – at least five to seven. Because different strains deliver different benefits.
For example, Lactobacillus acidophilus has been shown to help reduce cholesterol levels, while Lactobacillus plantarum has proven effectiveness in helping reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus rhamnosus have been shown to help reduce inflammation within brain neurons – and thereby ease depression.
Other strains like Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and Lactobacillus plantarum have been shown to improve immune function, and improve vaginal health.
Choosing a supplement that contains the right balance of strains to help with your particular health issues is the key to getting the biggest benefit from a probiotic supplement. There’s a helpful report at
3. The strains in your probiotic supplement must have been researched to be hardy.
The stomach is very acidic and probiotics need to be able to survive long enough to reach and colonise various parts of your intestine to have their beneficial effects.
The University of Nebraska has a world class centre for probiotic research. It identifies two exceptionally resistant strains – being Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1 and Bacillus coagulans ProDura.
4. Probiotics are live microbes. Their ‘food’ is prebiotics – sources include leeks, onions, oats and garlic. A well formulated probiotic should include some prebiotics to ‘kick-start’ their colonisation of the gut.
Check probiotic supplement labels
A final point. As noted above, the US National Yogurt Association requires 1 billion cultures per serving to be classified as a probiotic yogurt. The UK does have a code of practice for yogurts, but this does not include any definition of probiotic standards.
In contrast, probiotic supplements can be much more worthwhile, but check labels carefully.
The UK multi-strain supplement brand Microbiotic Plus contains 7.5 billion cultures per vegan dairy-free capsule or serving – some 700% of the US threshold level.
Conclusion – yogurt AND probiotic supplements
Keep eating your yogurt for its other benefits – ideally traditionally made, organic and live or in forms like kefir.
But to get the real benefits of probiotics, look at scientifically formulated probiotic supplements.
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