Probiotics vs Probiotic Yogurt: How Do They Compare? | Daily Dose - Physician's Choice

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  • June 09, 2020 5 min read

    If you’re like many people, you’ve probably heard and read about the many health benefits of probiotics, and may be working on implementing more of them into your diet and lifestyle. In doing so, a common question that often comes up is whether or not taking a probiotic supplement is actually necessary, or whether it is possible to reap all of the benefits of probiotics from eating foods like yogurt.

    Read on to learn more about the probiotics that are found in yogurt and how it compares to taking a probiotic supplement.

    Probiotics in Yogurt

    Yogurt is one of the few, but most common foods, that naturally contain probiotics. Yogurt is created by culturing milk with bacteria, specifically those that contain the lactic acid-producing bacteria such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. This process is known as fermentation, and causes the milk to become thicker and develop a sour taste. Fermentation also acts as a natural preservative for yogurt, allowing it to stay fresh for longer. Some yogurt manufacturers will add additional probiotic bacteria to yogurts, such as the strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species, with the goal of providing additional health benefits. The end result is a delicious, creamy product that should contain live probiotics that benefit the GI tract and overall health of the person eating it.

    However, not all yogurts are created equally when it comes to probiotics. In the United States, some manufacturers heat the yogurt after fermentation in a process called pasteurization. This heat can kill the live cultures that were used in creating it, so it may no longer contain probiotics. Other manufacturers, though, may add in probiotic bacteria after pasteurization, which means they would still be alive when the final product is purchased and eaten.

    To help ensure that you are eating yogurt that contains active probiotics, look for the term “live active cultures” on the label, which can also often be found in the ingredients list. To help consumers recognize products that meet this criteria, the International Dairy Foods Association also offers a voluntary “Live and Active Cultures” seal that yogurt manufactures can apply for, and if approved, use on their products. Because the seal is voluntary and does require a process to obtain, though, not all yogurt brands will use it even if their products do in fact contain live probiotics.

    What type of yogurt is best?

    You’ve probably noticed that there are a LOT of types of yogurt on the market, with new products being added all the time.

    Here’s a breakdown of the main types:

    • Traditional yogurt. This is the original type, and perhaps still the most common on grocery store shelves. It has a slightly runny texture and sour flavor, which is often flavored to help improve likeability. Traditional yogurt tends to be highest in sugar of all the yogurt types, and doesn’t contain as much protein as other varieties. However, it can still be a source of probiotics as long as it was not heat treated after fermentation and still contain live and active cultures.
    • Greek yogurt. This popular variety of yogurt hosts a much thicker and creamier texture due to being strained more times than traditional yogurt. Greek yogurt is higher in protein than traditional yogurt and can be lower in sugar, depending on the brand and flavor. Most greek yogurts are good sources of probiotic bacteria, but the exact amount in comparison to traditional yogurt is unclear and often varies.
    • Icelandic yogurt (also known as “skyr”). This is very similar to yogurt and has a thick, creamy texture very similar to greek yogurt. Skyr tends to be higher in protein and lower in sugar compared to traditional yogurt, and is typically a good source of live and active cultures.
    • Kefir. This is not exactly the same thing as yogurt, but is another type of fermented milk that is a natural source of probiotics. It is made by adding kefir “grains”, which are small pebble-like colonies of yeast and bacteria, to milk and allowing it to ferment at room temperature for at least 24 hours, but often longer. In part due to less heat being used, kefir tends to contain more strains of probiotics than yogurt and a greater number of bacteria as well, potentially offering more health benefits. It also can contain more protein than traditional yogurt. Kefir can be found in the same section as yogurt in most grocery stores, and can also be made at home using kefir grains.
    • Non-dairy yogurts. Due to an increased demand for dairy-free options, many brands have developed non-dairy yogurts which are usually made from soy, almond, and/or coconut milk. The downside is that these types tend to be amongst the lowest in protein and contain more carbohydrates and sugar than the other varieties. They also often are not a good source of probiotics and may not contain any live cultures at all.
    • Homemade yogurt. This is yet another option for people who are more adventurous or creative. It requires the use of a yogurt maker, but the main benefit is that all ingredients are able to be controlled by the person making it, so it may have a better nutritional profile and be higher in probiotics.

    Ultimately, the healthiest yogurts and yogurt varieties are those that contain live and active cultures and are also low in fat and added sugar. Flavored yogurt nearly always contains significantly more sugar than plain yogurt, so it is best to purchase a plain variety and flavor it yourself using things like berries, cinnamon, and small amounts of natural sweeteners if needed, such as honey or maple syrup.

    Is eating yogurt enough to reap the benefits of probiotics?

    There are a few reasons why eating food sources of probiotics such as yogurt fall short in comparison to taking probiotic supplements.

    • Lack of variety of probiotic strains. There are only a few strains (types of bacteria) that naturally occur in yogurt. Different strains offer different health benefits, so consuming a wide variety of strains is the best way to obtain diversity. So while the strains in yogurt do provide health benefits, they simply don’t provide enough variety to deliver the full benefits of what probiotics can offer. Probiotic supplements, on the other hand, can easily contain dozens of strains in a single capsule.
    • Not as potent. This refers to the strength of the probiotic bacteria. This is measured in terms of colony-forming units (CFUs) and refers to the number of live, usable cells. Most probiotic supplements will contain a minimum of 1 to 10 billion CFUs, with many containing much larger quantities, even as high as 50 billion or more. Yogurt, on the other hand, may contain on average about 6 billion CFUs.
    • Often contain added sugar, artificial flavorings and additives. Yogurt provides more than just probiotics. It is true that yogurt can be a great source of quality nutrients such as protein and minerals like calcium and potassium. Yet many brands also contain loads of added sugar and other additives that counteract the beneficial impact of the probiotics they do contain. So the probiotics in yogurt may become less effective due to the other additives they contain. Alternatively, high-quality probiotic supplements provide a pure source of beneficial bacteria that isn’t interfered upon by other ingredients.

    In Summary

    While some yogurts can be natural sources of beneficial probiotics, you would have to eat an extremely large quantity of yogurt to reap the same benefits of what a high-quality supplement can offer. Supplements offer significantly larger amounts and varieties of probiotic strains, which allows them to offer more health benefits. So while yogurt can absolutely still be part of a healthy diet, it should not be relied upon as a sole source of probiotics for therapeutic purposes.

    Joanna Foley - Contributing Writer, Physician's Choice

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