Probiotic drinks: are they really the little digestive miracle in a bottle that they claim to be?

·6-min read

You might have noticed that the world of gut health has been fizzing with increased excitement in recent years. And for good reason: research has linked it to everything from boosted immunity to clearer skin and improved mood. And, a fun fact regarding the latter, about 90% of the ‘happy’ hormone serotonin is produced in the gut, so it’s well worth your while to keep the organ in tip-top condition.

However, achieving good gut health is another matter. There’s been a push towards eating fermented foods – like kefir, sourdough bread, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso – and taking probiotics. The latter works by restoring the natural balance of "good" bacteria in the gut.

Now, there’s no doubt that supplementing with probiotics can be easier for those on busy schedules. As well as capsule form, you can also sip on them. But are those little yoghurt-like drinks actually worth your money? Or is tweaking your diet more beneficial? We got stuck into the science…

What are probiotic drinks?

Probiotics drinks contain, as you’d expect, probiotics. 'They are a term used for the live bacteria and yeasts that are found naturally in the body,' says registered nutritional therapist Mel Dixon. 'These microorganisms form a community which do things like support good digestion and help the immune system to fight infection.'

And probiotics drinks have the same end goal. 'They claim to parachute good gut bacteria into your body to support the microbiome when you need it most,' explains Sam Hamrebtan, registered nutritionist and founder of nutrition practice The Loess Life. Yet, unlike munching gut-friendly foods, they are presented as a quicker, more convenient option.

So, what sets them apart from other gut-supporting drinks, like kombucha and kefir? 'The difference between these beverages and actual probiotic drinks is that the latter technically should have been shown to confer a benefit to health while the former does not need to,' notes nutritionist Dr Harriet Holme. 'Additionally, they might contain prebiotics – which are indigestible carbohydrates that feed good bacteria in the gut – instead of probiotics.'

Do probiotic drinks do anything?

In short, the benefits are negligible. The research on probiotics themselves is still in its infancy. Early studies have suggested that they can support everything from immunity to digestion and mental health. However, the science is still rather thin. A review found that probiotic products – including capsules, as well drinks, biscuits and sachets – may be of no benefit, since there was no evidence they changed the composition of faecal bacteria.

Less appetising still are the explorations into probiotic drinks specifically. Research has questioned the purported positives of making it a daily part of your routine, since the beneficial bacteria is unable to get a foothold in people’s digestive tracts. Another study suggested more needs to be done to protect consumers from “false and misleading” claims in this area.

However, it seems some might make the cut. 'One key test with probiotic drinks is to make sure that the live bacteria survive our stomach acid so they can get to where they need to do their work – the gut,' says Hamrebtan. 'A study did show that Actimel Original was more able to withstand the harsh environment in our stomach, and therefore could be better for the gut.'

Although it’s unclear whether all probiotic drinks meet this requirement. Dixon adds: 'Probiotic drink and food manufacturers should meet the criteria set out by EU law regarding such health claims, which are backed up by years of research, however some scientists suggest that the evidence is lacking in some cases.'

How do you know which probiotic is right for you, and how much should you spend?

If you do want to give probiotic drinks a go, there are a few things you should consider. 'When choosing a probiotic drink, look for those that contain species such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, and always check that the label says "live active cultures",' says Dixon. 'It’s important that these live cultures are able to survive the acidic environment of the stomach as they travel through the digestive system, so that they can reach the gut and carry out their good work.'

It’s also important to look at what else the drink is made from – both good and bad. 'Probiotic drinks often contain other beneficial added ingredients, such as calcium and vitamin D, but be careful not to consume too much as they can be high in sweeteners or sugar to enhance the flavour,' notes Dixon. Indeed, it's always best to opt for the unsweetened or original versions as research has found that the sugar and sweeteners can actually stop good gut bacteria colonising. What's more, she adds: 'They’re not for everyone – they may be problematic for those with digestive issues and can cause symptoms such as excess wind, bloating and stomach pain or discomfort.'

There’s also the cost to take into account. 'Consuming a probiotic drink on a daily basis can be costly, and it may be worth considering alternatives,' suggests Dixon. 'Kombucha and apple cider vinegar are good options – opt for organic varieties which contain the "mother" for most effectiveness. And if you’re looking for a gut-supporting beverage, consider herbal teas such as peppermint, ginger or chamomile, which can help to calm inflammation and ease digestive disorders.' But, it’s not always necessary to spend money on trendy, pricey drinks – eating probiotic-rich food can be much more affordable. Talking of which….

How do I improve the health of my gut?

While the jury may still be out on probiotic drinks, there’s evidence that consuming a healthy, balanced diet can help. 'Probiotic foods, which include fermented products such as live yoghurt, kefir or sauerkraut, also provide beneficial bacteria that helps to support digestive health,' suggests Lorraine Perretta, registered nutritional therapist for the Institute for Optimum Nutrition. 'Other food sources of probiotics include live yoghurt, kefir, tempeh, natto and miso made from soya beans; sauerkraut and kimchi from cabbage; and kombucha from tea.' You can also support your gut health by consuming prebiotics. 'These include cupboard staples like bananas, oats, apples, garlic and flaxseeds,' adds Hamrebtan.

But, whatever you do, it’s important to mix things up. 'Eating a colourful, varied diet that includes vegetables, fruit and wholegrains is essential for feeding our gut bacteria,' notes Perretta. 'Struggle to get enough vegetables in your diet? Use them in dishes such as curries and stews, or just having a side of greens with each meal.' Finally, Dr Holme adds that it's important to get at least 30g of fibre per day and avoid trans fats and sweeteners.

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