We’ve talked about probiotics — those bacteria that help boost the health of your microbiome — and we’ve talked about prebiotics — even more healthy bacteria that feed probiotics. So, what else is there to talk about? How about probiotic cultures?

Most of the time when we talk about these gut boosting agents, we simply refer to probiotics as healthy bacteria and move on. Yet, there’s encyclopedia’s worth of information about what goes into making probiotics. The basis of these superfood agents are the live or active cultures that generate the strains of bacteria, which then make it to your body and help improve health.

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So, what are probiotic cultures? Where do they come from? Are they safe? How many different types are there?

Lots of questions and hopefully the following will provide even more answers!

Understanding Probiotic Cultures in Three Steps

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In the quest to understand the mechanisms behind probiotics and why they are a growing health trend, it’s important to break down the make of a probiotic substance. This means digging deep into what probiotics are, what cultures are, and what exactly live cultures in probiotics are.

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What are Probiotics?

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Probiotics — meaning “for life” — are “living microorganisms found in yogurt and other cultured foods [that] may help improve your body’s bacterial environment inside and out.” These billion-dollar empire microorganisms are being used in a myriad of ways to improve health including treatment of certain illness and even to “maintain overall well-being.” Due to their popularity, probiotics come in a variety of forms including supplements, beverages, and specially-made foods, but probiotics can also be found naturally in cultured foods?

How is this? Probiotics come from cultures.

What are Live Cultures?

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Alright, now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty.

So, probiotics are filled with live or active cultures. What in the heck is are live or active culture?

Live cultures — oftentimes referred to as active cultures as well — should be broken down by their make. To begin from the top and work our way down, live cultures are “microbes associated with foods, often as food fermentation agents,” meaning live cultures aid in the fermenting process of fermented foods. On the next level, we look at the microorganisms, which “consist mainly of bacteria … [as well as] …yeasts.” For instance, when it comes to dairy-based yogurt, “live bacterial cultures … help to convert milk into yogurt [a fermented food] in the first place.”

These food-found bacteria-based microorganisms are the live or active cultures that you are looking for in regards to obtaining health benefits.

On the other hand, “some probiotics are microbes that would not typically be associated with foods (such as E. coli),” and these are usually not referred to as live or active cultures and are not readily available for consumption for obvious reasons.

Live Cultures in Probiotics

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Now we’re putting all the pieces together!

Live or active cultures are built off of microorganisms, which are, in turn, built off of strains of bacteria. Certain strains of bacteria have been found to provide certain health benefits by improving the human microbiome — the bacteria-rich ecosystem throughout our body.

Most probiotics offer a wide variety of bacteria strains. This is the goal of probiotics — to diversify the microbiome, specifically focusing on helping to boost the health and diversify gut-specific microbiota. The health of our gut microbiota has recently been linked to a myriad of health issues from mood disorders to autoimmune diseases to digestion conditions. Probiotics have become widely popular to help tackle these issues.

Strains of Probiotics

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So, what are these bacteria strains I’m talking about?

Luckily, probiotics are actually “identified by their specific strain, which includes the genus, the species, the subspecies (if applicable) and an alphanumeric strain designation.” When it comes to probiotic supplements or probiotic-rich food you’re most likely consuming one of the “seven core genera of microbial organisms most often used in probiotic products” which includeLactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Bacillus.”

For a probiotic-specific product — such as a supplement or probiotic marketed yogurt — you’ll see this broken down even further such as popular strains of bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus or Lactobacillus bulgaricus.

Getting the Right Amount

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When it comes to dosage, the best advice is to speak with your doctor or nutritionist. Probiotics are a relatively new product to hit the health market and research is still ongoing regarding how much affects certain people over short and long periods of time. Therefore, working with your health care provider to implement these health foods or supplements is a great way to safely monitor the effects.

With that said, Harvard Women’s Health Watch has developed a few research-based suggestions for anyone considering incorporating probiotics into their diet.

First, the currently “recommended doses range from 1 billion to 10 billion colony-forming units (CFU) — the amount contained in a capsule or two — several days per week.” It’s been found that one daily supplement “for one to two weeks may improve conditions such as infectious or antibiotic-related diarrhea.” Another tip from Harvard Women’s Health Watch is to guarantee that the “microorganisms in probiotic supplements … [are] … alive when you take them,” or they can be freeze-dried in capsules. Environmental elements such as heat, moisture, and air may kill off the live cultures that you need, therefore make sure refrigerate when necessary.

Where to Find Probiotic Cultures

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There are typically two sources of probiotic cultures: supplements, food, and raw cultures.

If you’re looking to make your own DIY probiotic yogurt or food product, then you’ll want to find a dependable raw culture. On the other hand, depending on the strength and reason for use of the probiotic, you can buy products that have already been imbued with the powers of probiotic cultures such as supplements, probiotic powders, or even probiotic-rich foods.

With that said, before making any changes to your diet or implementing any new supplement, it’s incredibly important to speak with your doctor. This is even more crucial if you suffer from gut-related issues or other health conditions.

DIY Probiotic Starters

Cultures For Health Vegan Yogurt Starter/Amazon.com

If you’re looking to make your own probiotic-rich foods at home, you’ll need a little help from a starter.

Oftentimes, you’ll find that these are labeled as “starters” when searching for raw cultures to make DIY probiotic-rich foods. It’s important to take note of the type of live cultures used in the starter, as you’ll want a variety of bacteria strains. Starters are super popular in the vegan world in order to avoid dairy consumption.

This Cultures For Health Vegan Yogurt Starter for only $10.99 has 5 different bacteria strains, while this NPSelection Vegan Starter Cultures for Homemade BIO Yogurt for $21.00 contains 9 different bacteria strains. Choose one and just remember that you can always switch it up until you find the perfect starter for you! 

Let’s say you’re not a yogurt fan? How about giving fermented, probiotic-rich Kombucha a try?

Making DIY at-home kombucha is actually a lot easier then you may think. Plus, you don’t need to buy a starter for kombucha, simply buy some of your favorite kombucha and use this as a starter. All you need are liter jars, black tea (of your choice), flavored herbal teas (of your choice), pure can sugar (for the bacteria to eat), SCOBY, a clean kitchen towel, a rubber band, and a big metal spoon.

Naturally-Rich Probiotic Foods

Bubbies Pure Kosher Dill Pickles/Amazon.com

Looking to simply pick something up off the shelf? You’re in luck! There are a few options to choose from.

First off are fermented foods, which are “made through the growth and metabolic activity of a variety of live microbial cultures.” These foods contain “live and potentially beneficial microbes” and include sourdough bread, pickles, kombucha, and yogurt. With that said, many of these products are actually “processed after they are fermented” which kills off the live cultures. Therefore, find brands that have the live culture info in the ingredients list or on the jar or box.

It’s important to note that the microorganisms in fermented foods “usually do not survive transit through the stomach and might not resist degradation in the small intestine” and oftentimes only small amounts of live cultures or none at all reach your gut.

On the other hand, “legitimate probiotic strains contained in yogurt … do survive the intestinal transit,” therefore, if you’re looking for a powerful punch of vegan-based probiotics, you may want to focus on specific foods infused with probiotics such as this Califia Farms Super Berry Probiotic Drinkable Yogurt for $2.89, this GoodBelly Pomegranate Blackberry Probiotic Juice for $3.59, or this KeVita Master Brew Kombucha with Live Probiotics for $2.99.

Probiotic Supplements

Ora Organics Probiotics with Prebiotic/Amazon.com

Those of us practicing plant-based living may have a harder time getting our hands on hard-hitting natural probiotics. No fear! There are a host of organic, non-GMO, vegan-friendly and powerful probiotic products that are designed for this type of consumer. One of the great benefits with probiotic supplements and powders is control over the specific bacterial strains. These products are marketed specifically to provide a diverse variety of bacterial strains in each and every dose. Therefore, you can rest assured that you’re receiving what you paid for!

Probiotic supplements come in a variety of forms. The liquid form — such as this vegan-friendly MaryRuth’s Organic Liquid Probiotics is easily consumed and can be added to other food. The capsule form — such as this vegan-friendly Ora Organics Probiotic with Prebiotic capsule supplement — is great for probiotics-on-the-go, especially for those who regularly travel. Lastly, the powder form of probiotics — such as this Ora Organics Probiotics with Prebiotic powder supplement — is really great for protein shakes and smoothies.

We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

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