Probiotic foods: Why they’re better than supplements

Probiotic foods have a long history of improving health. Most of their effects are attributed to improving the digestive system. But there are other beneficial effects to eating probiotic foods. They can help correct things like:

  • High blood pressure
  • Insulin resistance
  • Chronic inflammation
  • High oxidative stress
  • Autonomic imbalance

Most of these problems will haunt you at some point in your life. For example, all of them share some relationship with one of the diseases that will likely kill you. Such as Cardiovascular disease, Cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

But one of the problems society runs in to is reductionist thinking. Reductionist thinking is when we take a response to something complex and try to attribute it to a single component. And there really is no better example of reductionist thinking than believing the beneficial effects of probiotic foods only come from the strains of bacteria they contain.

A research review on kefir clearly shows how the benefits of consuming probiotic foods go well beyond the probiotic strains.

Lifeway Kefir

How probiotic foods like kefir trump supplements

Kefir is a fermented food made from milk using bacteria and yeast. It’s similar to yogurt but not quite as solid, so it’s something you drink more than eat. Making kefir is simple, just take the symbiotic organisms called kefir grains, add them to milk, and wait.

Or, if you’re like me, go to the supermarket and buy it. Much simpler, but keep in mind you may not get the full benefit as they use a stripped down starter culture and not full the 50-60 strain kefir grains.

When you ferment milk with kefir grains, you get a functional food that consists of:

  • Milk(obviously)
  • Probiotics(Beneficial organisms)
  • Prebiotics that the probiotics feed on
  • Nutrients that the bacteria make and we use
  • Bioactive compounds that affect gut health

As you can see, a probiotic food like kefir is far more than just the probiotics used to ferment milk. You get a lot more bang for your buck than you do from probiotic supplements.

In the review on kefir, the researchers discuss how many of the benefits from kefir come from what the kefir grains make. This includes:

  • Antioxidant enzymes(glutathione reductase, superoxide dismutase, etc.)
  • ACE inhibiting compounds(Lower blood pressure)
  • Compounds that increase insulin sensitivity
  • Proteins that activate anti-inflammatory cytokines
  • Other enzymes that deconjugate bile acids, decrease cholesterol, and metabolize fatty acids

And since little of the bacteria will survive the stomach, allowing the grains to make these compounds in the milk increases their abundance. Interestingly, some studies show the non-bacterial components of kefir to yield significant benefit.

Getting the benefits of kefir

As you can see, a probiotic food like kefir is far more complete than a simple probiotic blend. And it’s important to point out that companies often take studies showing the benefits of animal milk kefir as valid for coconut milk or water kefir.

That’s not to say that those types aren’t beneficial. But since the benefits go beyond the probioic strains, what you ferment the grains in will completely change the product you get. So you can’t take studies on cow or goat milk kefir and pass them off as valid for coconut or water.

In fact, goat and cow milk kefir may be different enough to warrant a differentiation between the 2. But I’m much more confident that the goat and cow milk varieties are within the same ballpark as one another than the other 2.

Goat’s milk contains an easier to digest form of casein and more human-like oligosaccharides than cow’s milk. If you’re going dairy-based for your probiotic food, goat’s milk yogurt or kefir may be your best bet. Goat’s milk kefir is typically the recommendation we make to people for a dairy-based probiotic food.

All that aside, the benefits of whichever type of kefir you consume will take time to show up. In the review, they mention that it takes 30-60 days to see the cardiovascular benefits in animal models. So in humans, it would at least take that long.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a damaged gut often responds poorly to probiotic foods. Beneficial organisms and their bioactive compounds work well with a healhy, intact gut. But in a compromised gut, they can cause inflammation and other promote leaky gut.

I look at probiotic foods to improve a mostly healthy gut a little further, say from 90 to 100%. I don’t believe they’re a great option for repairing a damaged gut until you’re most of the way there.


Probiotic foods such as kefir can be very useful to help optimize gut health. They’re a better choice than probiotic supplements because they contain a plethora of prebiotics and bioactive compounds that can have positive effects on the gut.

Probiotic manufacturers have taken note and are now packaging probiotics with prebiotics to give them a little boost. But they still fall short on bioactive compounds that interact with our gut and other members of our microbiome.

Even if some of the individual strains survive the stomach, they’re not going to make as many of these beneficial compounds as they would in the food/drink they’re fermented in. This makes probiotic foods a superior choice to probiotics for gut health.

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