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A question I hear frequently is “What is the best probiotic out there?” The person asking is always referring to a pill. But is a pill really the best option? Aside from costing a small fortune every month, especially for a family of 6, are pills any better than eating a good fermented food?
Lactic Acid Bacteria Content
How many LAB’s in a pill is easy to find, just look on the label. But it’s difficult to find good information on exactly how many LAB’s are in a fermented food since it’s such a subjective topic. What vegetable are we talking about, how fresh was it when it was fermented, was a starter culture used, what was the temp, was an anaerobic vessel used? I’d love to send my ferments in to see how they stack up but the costs behind that are prohibitive for just a curious blogger.
I’ve seen numbers as low as 1-1.5 billion per 25 gms (.9 oz) serving of sauerkraut  to vegetables started with a probiotic starter culture having 10 trillion . Trillion. Yup, I said trillion. Dr. Mercola had some of his fermented veggies tested and the results were astounding.
Pills on the other hand typically contain between 50 million-10 billion bacteria units per pill. 10 trillion would be more than a whole bottle of probiotic pills.
Diversity of LAB’s in Fermented Food
Most pills contain just a few strains of LAB’s. Some of the more expensive brands contain multiple strains but I have yet to see a pill have as many strains as milk kefir. Fermented foods contain a much more diverse population of LAB’s. Most people are familiar with acidophilus and bifidobacterium but there are so many other strains that are important for gut health. Milk kefir can have up to 27 or more different strains of bacteria and many different strains of beneficial yeasts. A list of commonly found bacteria and yeast in milk kefir can be found here http://www.culturesforhealth.com/milk-kefir-grains-composition-bacteria-yeast
Kombucha contains different bacteria and yeast as well. Each SCOBY is different because kombucha is a truly wild ferment since it is open air but a list of commonly found yeast and bacteria can be found here: http://www.culturesforhealth.com/kombucha-yeast-bacteria
Fermented vegetables contain soil based bacteria not found in cultured dairy products so mixing things up is always good. Eat yogurt for breakfast, have sauerkraut with lunch and drink kombucha with dinner. Just an example of some of the bacteria involved in fermenting vegetables include (from The Liberated Kitchen).
- Lactobacillus brevis
- Lb. plantarum
- Leuconostoc mesenteroides
- Pediococcus acidilactici
- Ped. pentosaceus
Not only do fermented foods contain more LAB’s and different strains but they also are full of nutrients. The fermentation process actually predigests the foods making the food more digestible and the nutrients in the food more bioavailable. Some vitamins are actually created in the fermentation process like B vitamins. The vitamin C in sauerkraut is 20 times higher than in fresh cabbage:
“This is because in the fresh cabbage, vitamin C is bound in the cellulose structure and various other molecules, and our digestive system is just not able to cleave it off and absorb it. Lots of it goes undigested and come out right out of you. So despite the fact that cabbage may be very rich in vitamin C, a lot of it you will not be able to absorb. But if you fermented that cabbage and made sauerkraut, all the vitamin C becomes bioavailable,” she (Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride) explains. 
Does bacteria make it through the stomach to the intestines anyway?
This is one argument I’ve heard in favor of a pill. They claim the pill’s casing should make it to the intestine protecting the bacteria through the stomach. But is that really necessary. Lactic acid bacteria thrive in acidic environments. Also when eaten with a food or in a beverage, the food or liquid itself protects the LAB’s considerably. While not each and every little bit of bacteria make it to the intestines, most do just fine.
So my conclusion? Save your money and get fermenting. Not only is it cheaper but you get more probiotics and more nutrition. If you are unsure where to start, I highly suggest purchasing Lisa Herndon’s book “Lisa’s Counter Culture” or for some great in depth instruction, check out this lactofermentation e-course from KerryAnn of www.cookingtf.com with many videos and more videos added frequently.
I’m not sure if Dr. Mercola uses an anaerobic system for his ferments but we do know that a good anaerobic envirnoment is better for lactic acid bacteria and should create more of these wonderful buggies. Kind of makes me excited about how awesome my ferments probably are.
This Week in Fermentation
Patty from Loving Our Guts shares how she makes sauerkraut: Crispy Crunchy Sauerkraut. This is how I make my sauerkraut now. She is also doing this interesting yogurt experiment: The Great Yogurt Experiment. I’ve noticed when I do my milk kefir in a fido without an airlock, it has a less than desirable taste similar to what Patty experiences with yogurt.
And Lydia from Divine Health From the Inside Out has a recipe for Kefir Fruit Leather. I think this would be an awesome way to get some probiotic goodness in some of my more ferment resistant kids. She is also launching an online course that sounds amazing! Why is Your Gut Making You Sick and What To Do About It? It runs from November 7th through December 12th. You’ll not want to miss this!