Fermented Foods vs. Probiotic Supplements: Which Is Better?

Fermented Foods vs. Probiotic Supplements: Which Is Better?

By Ross Pelton

Scientific Director, Essential Formulas

Ross Pelton is a pharmacist, nutritionist, author and a health educator who is widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on drug-induced nutrient depletions. He was named one of the top 50 most influential pharmacists in the United States by American Druggist magazine for his work in Natural Medicine.

Research shows that our human bodies may benefit from certain types of helpful bacteria in our microbiome. “Microbiome” describes the trillions of bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and yeasts that naturally inhabit our bodies.

Studies have shown that in their daily living, some of these minuscule creatures create vitamins in our intestines, help with digestion, support the immune system, and help keep pathogenic bacteria from growing and causing challenges.

Human beings naturally have these microbes in our intestines, on our skin, in our mouths, in our urinary tracts, in our lungs, and for women, in our vaginas. If we naturally have these helpful bacteria in our bodies, why are we talking about adding them?

Several factors can damage or kill the good bacteria in our systems. One of the most frequent is antibiotic use. These life-saving medicines kill harmful or pathogenic bacteria but simultaneously kill the good bacteria that keep them in check. Other factors that could reduce good bacteria include stress, too much alcohol, lack of exercise, and insufficient sleep.

There are several ways to ingest these good bacteria, including drinks, food, and supplements, but which should you choose? We’ve developed this article to help you decide if, when, and how to add probiotics to your diet.

What are Fermented Foods?

Fermented foods have been with us for at least 9,000 years. Fermentation was first used as a way to preserve food before refrigeration existed. Think about fresh milk. It only stays fresh for a short time without refrigeration, but if you culture it into buttermilk, yogurt, or cheese, the shelf life is much longer.

Fermentation begins with introducing a particular type of bacteria into a food or, in some cases allowing naturally-occurring bacteria to appear and grow. The growing process can be a few days to years in the case of cheese.

With the advent of refrigeration, fermented foods fell out of use in the Western diet. It is just recently that fermented foods have once again emerged in the public’s attention. Their growing popularity primarily concerns the probiotics they contain and their effects on health.

Foods with Added Probiotics

Food manufacturers today add probiotics to various foods to capitalize on the public’s growing awareness of probiotics’ health effects. You can find probiotics foods on the shelf of nearly every aisle of the grocery store:

  • Cereals and granola
  • Juice products
  • Wine and beer
  • Confections
  • Baked goods
  • Cold brew coffee
  • Butter substitutes

While the concept sounds good, there are several issues with these products. They may not have the concentration or strain of probiotic the label says they do, and they may not have a mechanism to preserve the healthy bacteria on the shelf or through the digestive tract where they can do the most good.

What are Probiotic Supplements?

Another way to add probiotics to your body is with a probiotic supplement. A well-designed supplement adds in the most important bacteria strains, most frequently Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, and a yeast called Saccharomyces boulardii. There are multiple strains of these friendly microorganisms, and a good all-around supplement will contain a variety.

Probiotic supplements come in many forms, including capsules, gelcaps, liquid, and powder. Different brands are specifically designed for babies, children, and adults. They have become so popular that it is estimated that they will be a 69.3 billion-dollar industry in 2023.

As research has continued to show the benefits of the different strains, manufacturers are creating probiotic supplements targeted toward different conditions and age groups. Probiotic supplements target mood, skin, heart health, stress, UTIs, babies and children, women, men, and more.

How Probiotics Work in the Body

A good probiotic supplement is designed so the microbes survive the strong acids in the stomach and reach the intestines alive, where they begin to grow, supplanting “bad” bacteria that can prove harmful. As these good bacteria go about daily living, their activities provide numerous benefits for the human body.

  • Aid with digestion
  • Excrete certain vitamins
  • Support the intestinal lining to keep pathogenic bacteria from crossing into the blood
  • Help absorb and break down medications.

What Health Conditions Do Probiotics Help With?

While probiotics’ effects on digestive issues have received the most attention, scientists are exploring other avenues to determine whether there is a direct relationship between probiotic consumption and other conditions. Here are a few:

  • Healthy skin
  • Oral health
  • Allergies
  • Immune system response
  • Mood and stress

Factors to Consider When Choosing Between Fermented Foods and Probiotic Supplements

  1. Stomach acid survival rates
  2. Bacterial strains targeted to particular conditions
  3. Manufacturing purity
  4. The number of live microorganisms
  5. Fermented food taste preferences
  6. Cost-effectiveness over time

Which One Should You Choose?

For most people, there is no reason not to take a probiotic supplement and also drink a glass of kefir or eat sauerkraut as part of a diverse diet. Here are a few pros and cons of probiotic supplements vs. fermented foods.

Fermented Foods


Let’s start with fermented foods. Do you enjoy the taste? If so, why not add them to your diet? As with a probiotic supplement, start small and add as your body becomes accustomed to the new bacterial strains to avoid temporary stomach or intestinal discomfort. Aside from their probiotic value, fermented foods pack a punch with added nutritional value and micro factors.

Fermented foods don’t cost much compared to supplements, and depending on the food and how it is produced, they can have a large population of bacteria for the price. Some bacteria may not survive the stomach acids, but even their body structures and byproducts can help the good bacteria in your gut.


If you do not enjoy the taste of fermented foods, they may not be the best way to add probiotics to your diet. It is also essential to read labels and ensure they have “live and active cultures.” For instance, most buttermilk in the U.S. is cultured and usually contains no probiotic benefits. Only traditional buttermilk produced as a byproduct of making butter has live cultures.

In fermented food, you don’t know which strains you’re getting and in what quantities, so targeting a particular condition is difficult. You also don’t know if the food has retained its live cultures in shipping and on the shelf or how much to eat for a probiotic benefit.

Probiotic Supplements


Scientists see probiotics benefitting many different conditions. As these benefits have become more apparent, researchers are beginning to pinpoint the effective strains for specific concerns. With a supplement, you can more easily target a particular condition than you can with eating fermented foods.

With a probiotic supplement, the manufacturer has to list every ingredient, including the strains of bacteria it contains and any other ingredients. A supplement will also typically give you the number of beneficial bacteria the supplement included when it left the manufacturing facility.

Probiotics do the most good when they arrive alive in the intestines. There is no guarantee that microbes in fermented food will survive the stomach acids. Look for a supplement that allows the probiotics to get to the intestines alive.


While probiotic supplements are generally considered safe, if your immune system is compromised or you’ve had a recent surgery or lengthy hospitalization, consult your physician to determine if you should take a probiotic supplement.

Probiotic supplements can be costly and vary widely in quality. Some have added ingredients such as dairy and gluten that may cause allergic reactions aside from the microbial action. Researching your supplement and ensuring it is produced from whole ingredients and free from allergens is essential.

Lastly, probiotic supplements can be costly, especially if you have to try a few before finding a mix of microbes that works best for you.

Benefits of Including Both Fermented Foods and Probiotic Supplements in Your Diet

  1. Establish a diverse microbial population
  2. Improve digestion
  3. Support a balanced immune response
  4. Promote healthy mood
  5. Increase intestinal health

The 6 Best Fermented Foods for Your Gut Health

  1. Yogurt – fermented milk with live cultures, calcium, protein, and tryptophan
  2. Kefir – fermented milk drink with live cultures, protein, calcium, and tryptophan
  3. Kombucha – fermented tea and fruit juice, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals
  4. Sauerkraut – fermented cabbage live cultures, fiber, B vitamins, iron, and manganese
  5. Kimchi – nutrient-dense Korean dish of salted fermented vegetables with fiber and micronutrients
  6. Miso – fermented soybeans with salt and good bacteria

Final Thoughts

When determining whether fermented foods or supplements are the best way to add probiotics to your diet, consider that both may have a place. Adding fermented foods you like offers enjoyment, added nutrition, and potentially probiotic benefits.

The best of both worlds is to take a probiotic made of fermented foods. Dr. Ohhira’s probiotic supplements contain foods that have been fermented for three years and include a variety of probiotic strains.

Based on ancient Japanese wisdom supported by the latest research, you can be assured of purity, the absence of allergens, and a quality, tested product. Our website has a wealth of information about probiotics, their benefits and how we produce our supplements. We would love to hear from you if you have questions. Contact us for more information.


By Ross Pelton, RPh, PhD, CCN
Scientific Director, Essential Formulas

Ross Pelton is a pharmacist, nutritionist, author and a health educator who is widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on drug-induced nutrient depletions. He was named one of the top 50 most influential pharmacists in the United States by American Druggist magazine for his work in Natural Medicine.

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