What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms (bacterial cultures) that can provide health benefits when they are consumed or applied topically to the skin. The word “bacteria” can carry a negative connotation, and are sometimes thought of as germs that could cause illness or infection.
Some bacteria, as is the case with probiotics, are actually helpful to the body. Some help to digest food, while others fight diseases, or even produce vitamins. In fact, many of the microorganisms present in probiotics are similar to, if not the same as, the microorganisms found in our own bodies.
There are two main groups that most of the bacteria found in probiotics belong to: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. There are other types of bacteria that are sometimes used as probiotics, such as Saccharomyces boulardii, which is actually a yeast.
Probiotics and probiotic-containing foods have been growing in popularity over the last several years, and the global market is expected to reach nearly $106 billion by 2025.
How do probiotics work?
Once the probiotic bacteria reach the large intestine, they multiply and help to keep a balance between the good and bad bacteria that live there.
Stephanie MacNeil, a registered Dietician from Oakville, Ontario, says that it is important to understand that no two people are going to react the same way to a probiotic food or supplement.
“Different species and strains of probiotics deliver different benefits and their effects may vary from person to person. Each one of us has a unique microbiota (organisms that live inside our large intestine), so we may respond differently to probiotics.”
Probiotics can be used to prevent or treat some health conditions, including respiratory tract infections, eczema, traveller’s diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis. Some may also help regulate your immune system and influence the health of your brain.
What is probiotic yogurt?
MacNeil explains that all yogurt in Canada is made with the bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, however these bacteria are not recognized as probiotics by Health Canada.
“Some yogurt manufacturers will add pre-approved probiotic strains,” she explains. “To be called a probiotic food, yogurt must contain at least one billion live colony-forming units (e.g., active probiotic cultures) of a recognized probiotic species per serving.”
In order to benefit from probiotics, you need to consume at least 100 million colony-forming units each day.
There are a few other details you should look for on a yogurt label when considering which brand to purchase. MacNeill suggests looking for a yogurt with a short ingredients list, citing that less is often more.
For example, Nancy’s Organic plain yogurt contains just three ingredients: Organic pasteurized whole milk, organic pasteurized nonfat milk, and live yogurt cultures.
Overall, she says that yogurt should be a good source of protein without providing excess added sugars or artificial sweeteners. If you are looking to increase your protein intake, she recommends Greek yogurt, since it is strained twice and is therefore higher in protein.
The only downside to Greek yogurt, however, is that the straining process removes some of the calcium. If you’re trying to increase your calcium intake, MacNeill recommends looking for a yogurt that provides at least 15% of the daily value of calcium.
The other ingredient to watch out for is sugar, since flavoured yogurts can often contain high amounts of added sugars or artificial sweeteners.
“Added sugar is a common ingredient in fruited and flavored varieties of yogurt,” explains MacNeill. “Skip the added sugars by choosing plain yogurt and adding your own fruit or flavors such as cinnamon and vanilla.”
Probiotic vs regular yogurt
As MacNeil explained above, not all yogurts are considered “probiotic”. In order to simply be “yogurt”, the product must contain the strains S. thermophilus or L. bulgaricus. These strains, however, are not considered probiotics by Health Canada.
In order to be a “probiotic yogurt”, at least 1 billion live colony-forming units (active probiotic cultures) of probiotic strains pre-approved by Health Canada must be added during manufacturing. As mentioned above, read labels carefully and look for yogurts that add other strains of probiotics into their products.
Does greek yogurt contain probiotics?
The short answer is yes. The only difference between Greek yogurt and other types of yogurt is that it is strained, giving it a thicker consistency.
As with all other types of yogurt, however, it must contain at least 1 billion live bacterial cultures that have been added during manufacturing in order to be approved by Health Canada.
The straining process does typically increase the protein content of the yogurt, so if you’re looking for ways to add more protein into your diet, probiotic Greek yogurt is a great option for you.
Canada’s labelling regulations
According to Health Canada’s current labelling regulations, a product must contain a minimum of 1 billion live probiotic cultures per serving in order to make a claim on their label stating that their product provides the benefits associated with probiotics.
In order to make a claim on the label, the manufacturer must also ensure that the amount of probiotic microorganisms required to have the advertised health benefit must be present throughout the entire shelf life of the product.
Health Canada also allows for strain-specific and non-strain-specific, general claims regarding probiotics in their products, however the claim must be reviewed and accepted by Health Canada before it can be added to the label.
Not all yogurt brands measure up
A study published by the University of Toronto in 2017 evaluated a number of common yogurts and other probiotic-containing foods found on grocery store shelves, and determined that most products do not contain adequate levels of beneficial bacteria to provide the health benefits found in clinical trials.
For many of these yogurts, you need to consume a minimum of two servings per day to benefit from their probiotic content.
There are some brands available in Canada that MacNeill recommends because of their higher probiotic content.
Our pick for best overall – Activia
- Per serving (3/4 cup): 120 calories, 5 g fat (3.5 g sat), 80 mg sodium, 10 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 8 g sugar, 9 g protein
- Probiotic strain: B.L. Regularis / Bifidobacterium lactis DN-173 010
- Studied benefits: improve regularity, as well as decrease stomach pain and bloating in those with irritable bowel syndrome
Activia offers a range of different products including lactose-free yogurt, a yogurt drink, and even yogurt with added fibre. Activia yogurt provides 10 billion active probiotic cultures per serving, and carries a plain flavour that does not contain added sugar.
Best yogurt drink – Danone DanActive
- Per serving (93ml): 80 calories, 1.5 g fat (1 g sat), 50 mg sodium, 13 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 10 g sugar, 3 g protein
- Probiotic strain: Lactobacillus casei DN-114 001
- Studied benefits: decrease the frequency and length of the common cold
This is actually a yogurt drink, which makes it easy to take with you when you’re on the move. It contains 10 billion active probiotic cultures in every bottle, and is a source of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin A.
The drink comes in 7 flavours, including strawberry, vanilla, and mixed berry.
The only downside is that it does have a fairly high amount of sugar, with 10 grams per bottle, with sugar listed as the third ingredient on the label.
Best kefir yogurt – Astro Kefir Probiotic Yogurt
- Per serving (3/4 cup): 105 calories, 5 g fat (3 g sat), 75 mg sodium, 9 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 7 g sugar, 6 g protein
- Probiotic strains: 2 Billion Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM, Bifidobacterium lactis Bi-07
This new product offered by Astro provides more than 2 billion active probiotic cultures per serving of 100g. It comes in a variety of flavours, and is available in tubs, multipacks, and as a yogurt drink.
It also comes in plain, so you can avoid the added sugars in the flavoured varieties.
Best low fat – Astro BioBest Probiotic Yogurt
- Per serving (1/2 cup): 70 calories, 1.5 g fat (1 g sat), 70 mg sodium, 7 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 6 g protein
- Probiotic strains: 1 Billion+ Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM, Bifidobacterium lactis Bi-07
Astro’s plain yogurt contains over 1 billion active probiotic cultures and 7 essential vitamins and minerals. It is also 90% lactose-reduced, when compared with regular plain yogurt, so may be a better option for those who are sensitive to lactose.
Astro BioBest has only 1.5 grams of fat per serving, making it a great option if you are watching your fat intake, or if you find high-fat dairy difficult on your digestive system.
Best lactose free – iÖGO Probio Immuni-T
- Per serving (100g cup): 80 calories, 2.5 g fat (1.5 g sat), 50 mg sodium, 12 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 10 g sugar, 3 g protein
- Probiotic strains: 1 Billion+ BB-12® Bidobacterium Lactis
This yogurt has no preservatives, no artificial colours or flavours, and is gluten-free. It contains more than 1 billion active probiotic cultures per 100 gram serving and comes in 4 flavours- strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, and vanilla.
It contains zero lactose, making it a great option for people with sensitivities or allergies, however it is important to keep in mind that since it is flavoured, it has a higher sugar content than other plain options.
Best no fat greek yogurt – Organic Meadow
- Per serving (3/4 cup): 120 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 85 mg sodium, 6 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 18 g protein
- Probiotic strains: 1 Billion+ Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus
Organic meadow’s nonfat plain Greek yogurt contains only 2 ingredients- organic skim milk, and active bacterial cultures.
It provides more than 1 billion live probiotic cultures per serving, is an excellent source of calcium, and is high in protein. Since it is plain, it is very low in sugar, making it a very healthy option for breakfast or a snack.
Best with lactobacillus acidophilus – Organic Meadow 6% Plain
- Per serving (3/4 cup): 70 calories, 9.8 g fat (5.6 g sat), 105 mg sodium, 5 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 7 g protein
- Probiotic strains: 2 Billion, 10 different strains
Similarly to it’s non-fat version, Organic Meadow whole milk yogurt also has a very short ingredient list. Made with a combination of organic skim milk and organic cream, the extra fat creates a thick, rich consistency.
Each serving provides over 1 billion active bacterial cultures, including lactobacillus acidophilus, which may be beneficial for a range of health issues including chronic fatigue, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, and yeast infections, amoung others. Organic Meadow 6% is also a good source of calcium and is low in sugar.
Best yogurt alternative – LIBERTÉ 1% Plain Kefir
- Per serving (3/4 cup): 105 calories, 2 g fat (1.2 g sat), 75 mg sodium, 9 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 7 g sugar, 6 g protein
- Probiotic strains: 2 Billion Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM, Bifidobacterium lactis Bi-07
This kefir is similar in taste to a plain yogurt drink, but with a slightly more sour taste. It contains 10 different strains of active probiotic cultures and provides 2 billion probiotics per 250ml serving.
The drink is low in fat, and is generally well-tolerated by people with lactose intolerance, making it a great alternative for yogurt if you’re looking to try something different. Kefir tastes great on its own, but also works well when poured over your favourite cereal, or blended into a smoothie.
What are some other sources of probiotics?
Probiotics can be purchased in the form of a supplement from a pharmacy or health food store, however there are many foods that also contain probiotics. Anything that is fermented, such as kimchi, kefer, tempeh, sauerkraut, or fermented pickles, contain probiotics.
How long do probiotics last?
Most probiotic supplements indicate a shelf life on their label of about one year. According to regulations, this means that the number of probiotics present in the supplement at the time of manufacturing must remain the same until they reach that expiry date.
Unfortunately, probiotics are very sensitive to environmental conditions, and elements like heat and light can kill them in both supplements and food. This means that if the product has been handled improperly during transportation, or if you stored it incorrectly, the probiotics may no longer be living.
Expired probiotics will not harm you, however you will not experience their benefits if they are expired.
The difficulty is that labelling regulations require manufacturers to put the total number of probiotics on their container, but this weight could include both the living and dead microorganisms.
You might purchase a product that claims it contains 10 billion live bacterial cultures, but there is no good way of knowing whether or not those bacteria are alive or dead. For this reason, researchers at Harvard Health Publishing recommend skipping the supplement altogether and getting your daily dose of probiotics from fermented foods – like yogurt.
What is kefir?
Although yogurt and kefir look similar, they are not the same. Yogurt is the fermentation of milk, while kefir is fermented “kefir grain”, which is a combination of bacteria and yeast. To make kefir, you combine this grain with milk and store it at a warm temperature to allow it to ferment.
The flavour of kefir is similar to that of plain yogurt- tart and tangy. It is not as thick, however, and resembles more of a drinkable yogurt product.
Kefir tends to be higher in fat than yogurt, but it also tends to be higher in protein and probiotics. The consistency, however, is very different than yogurt, so is not typically used as a substitute.