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Are fermented foods probiotic?

Updated: May 21, 2020

Co-founder of The Crafty Pickle Co. Arthur contemplating ferments and probiotics
Co-founder of The Crafty Pickle Co. Arthur contemplating ferments and probiotics

NO. NOT REALLY. ERM MAYBE? The answer to this question is not exactly straight forward. This topic might be prone to some debate, but at The Crafty Pickle Co. we really don’t give a damn. Why? Because we’re both trained nutritionists with multiple degrees in science and we believe in facts and good research, not anecdotal evidence. That’s not to say there isn’t SOME truth to the anecdotal evidence out there; but we should heed with caution any advice from businesses or ‘self-proclaimed’ nutritionists claiming fermented foods are probiotics or will cure certain ailments.

So let’s look at some of the current facts shall we?

  • The current definition of a probiotic is - live micro-organisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host.

  • Many of the bacteria involved in the fermentation process are lactic acid bacteria (LAB), which are also the same TYPE of bacteria in many probiotics.

  • Food standard agencies prohibit the use of the term ‘probiotic’ on fermented food labels.

Right, let’s break these apart.

Imagine for a minute that you’re a lactic acid bacterium with hopes and dreams of someday being considered a probiotic. In order to be deemed probiotic the first step is, you have to be ALIVE. Good thing there are foods out there which are naturally fermented and are unpasteurised. Next, you and about a million of your bacteria buddies need to convince some chap to eat you. This is generally achieved by the wonderful and exciting flavours that arise from fermentation (I mean how could you resist?).

Here comes the hard part. After you’re eaten, you and your friends have a hell of journey to the large intestine (where most of the bacteria in our bodies live). You have to get through the acidic environment of the stomach (good thing you’re a lactic acid bacteria and are used to low pHs). You have to make it all the way through the small intestine (which is around 6 – 7 metres long) potentially running into trouble with the chap’s immune system along the way. When FINALLY you reach the large intestine where billions of other bacteria have lived since the chap was a wee chap. Still with us? Good!

If you managed to make it this far, chances are you are quickly slaughtered by the existing bacteria in the large intestine or are outcompeted for food and nutrients before you can even confer any sort of health benefit to the host (poor old chap… :-( ). If you’re lucky, you’re pooped out.

Many seem to think that because fermented foods contain lactic acid bacteria, they contain probiotics. We’re afraid this just isn’t the case. Fermentation can be unpredictable and can be affected by many different factors. Life at this microscopic level is VASTLY more complicated than many would care to admit.

So, the bottom line is, there is no evidence that shows ‘Jim’s Organic homemade free-range sauerkraut’ is having any sort of health benefit to individuals who eat it. Unless Jim of course is able to get his sauerkraut on a scientific study that measures its benefits. This is why food manufactures are restricted from calling their fermented foods probiotic. They have no evidence their products are offering a health benefit. They (or someone else) might claim that it cured their eczema or relieved their irritable bowel syndrome, but we would argue there were likely other variables involved that assisted these individuals in healing.

Even if it was solely the fermented foods doing, this effect is unlikely to be gifted to EVERYONE. We are all unique individuals with different bodies, genetics and bacteria populations. It' just not as simple as some would have us believe!

To put a cap on things, just because fermented foods can’t be legally referred to as probiotics, does not mean that they don’t carry any health benefits. As a result of fermentation, many of these foods may contain higher levels of vitamins and nutrients and the bacteria residing in them still MAY offer health benefits even if there isn’t research out yet to say for sure. At the very least, fermented foods offer an exciting way to increase our vegetable intake and provide diversity within our diets.

We believe there needs to be more honesty and transparency on the subject of fermented foods. Too many businesses and individuals are making unsubstantiated marketing claims about fermented foods being probiotic or ‘healing’ our guts in some way. We like to think these claims stem from genuine misunderstanding rather than deviously for personal or financial gain, but who really knows…

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1 Comment

Excellent news I love fermented foods especially Kraut and Kimchi and swear by the probiotic help rather than the little bottles of milk substance available in supermarkets that do nothing at all. I eat pickles daily so good for you and delicious

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