Your guide to the difference between fermented foods and probiotics
A useful article from Gut Microbiota New Watch
For many years, humans have known that bacteria and other microorganisms are capable of transforming food substrates, making them both tasty and nutritious. More and more, chefs and other food-makers are putting bacteria to work to produce fermented foods. With delicious results.
Besides flavour, though, are there other reasons to seek out fermented foods? Scientists around the world are trying to answer this question by studying the possible health benefits of consuming live cultures.
Robert (Bob) Hutkins, Professor of Food Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (USA), studies bacteria in fermented foods and factors that affect their survival in the gastrointestinal tract. In untangling the health benefits we can attribute to fermented foods, he says, it’s important to address the common misconception that fermented foods are the same thing as “probiotics”—the latter being live bacteria that confer health benefits when consumed in adequate numbers, according to the definition set by an international panel of experts in both 2001 and 2014.
“Not all fermented foods contain live organisms,” Hutkins tells GMFH editors. “Beer and wine, for example, undergo steps that remove the organisms [like yeasts that allow fermentation]. Other fermented foods are heat-treated and the organisms are inactivated. Bread is baked and sauerkraut is often canned. So while these foods may be nutritious, they do not have probiotic activity.”
He continues, “That being said, there are still lots of fermented foods that do contain live organisms, including yogurt and other [fermented] dairy foods, most cheeses, non-heated sauerkraut and kimchi, even many of the European-style dry fermented sausages.”
So then, can the term probiotic be applied to the subset of fermented foods that do contain live microorganisms when consumed? Hutkins says it cannot: “The live organisms present in these products are there for one main reason – to perform the fermentation (i.e., convert milk into yogurt or cheese, or cabbage into kimchi). These cultures do not necessarily have any probiotic functions. By definition, probiotics must ‘confer a health benefit’. That means the probiotic must have been characterized and have clinical evidence of a health benefit. Cultures are not probiotic unless they have met this requirement.”
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About the Author
Science writer Kristina Campbell (M.Sc.), from British Columbia (Canada), specializes in communicating about the gut microbiota, digestive health, and nutrition. Author of the best selling Well-Fed Microbiome Cookbook, her freelance work has appeared in publications around the world. Kristina joined the Gut Microbiota for Health publishing team in 2014