To see what the real deal is about probiotic CFU counts and how much they really count in the bigger scheme of things, we reached out to microbiologist Miguel Freitas, PhD, Vice President of Health and Scientific Affairs for Danone North America.
First, what are the UFC?
CFUs are a unit of measurement indicating the amount of live, active organisms in probiotic foods and supplements. “Because probiotics are microorganisms, you’ll find that CFU values are typically in the billions per serving or billions per milliliter,” says Dr. Freitas. “The value indicates the number of microbes or cultures, but not necessarily whether or not the bacteria provide a benefit to gut health.”
Is a higher CFU count of probiotics always better?
In a word: no. This fact might come as a surprise, especially in light of the findings of an August 2021 Danone survey of 1,004 adults in which 59 percent of respondents believed that more CFUs in a given product produced greater efficacy.
“This is a common misconception, but higher CFU counts are not necessarily better,” says Dr. Freitas. What *is* better, however, is a product that contains “the specific strain in the same amount that was shown to be effective in human studies using that product.” In essence, any probiotic food or supplement worth purchasing will contain specific strains in precise amounts that demonstrate clinically proven benefits at those levels.
Similarly, another key factor that far outweighs the actual measurement of CFU counts (at face value) is that probiotics will survive long enough to enter your system and actually produce a certain benefit. “For example, Activia yogurt includes a unique Bifidus probiotic culture (Bifidobacterium lactis DN-173 010/CNCM I-2494), plus four additional live cultures. The Bifidus culture was specifically selected for its ability to survive passage through the system digestive system and reach the large intestine in sufficient quantities,” says Dr. Freitas. Another must-have tip: “You should avoid products that list CFUs at ‘time of manufacture’ because they don’t account for declines in probiotic numbers during storage,” he adds.
In other words, consumers need to dig deeper and go beyond just looking for the highest CFU counts, as well as reading the fine print to ensure that the number of CFUs listed remains intact from product development to delivery and all the way to your digestive system. system.
Are more probiotic species and strains better?
Sometimes you’ll see that a probiotic food or supplement contains a mix of species and strains, sometimes in a variety of genera (eg, Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Bifidobacterium), which can also lead you to default back to ” much better”. mindset. After all, diversity is the name of the game when it comes to gut health, right? Well… not so fast. Capitalizing on the myth buster above, a probiotic that contains a variety of strains (within or between genera or species) also does not inevitably mean that it is superior.
“Again, specific strains are linked to different benefits,” says Dr. Freitas. “Experts have suggested that most probiotics have strain-specific mechanisms of action, but sometimes the same species and genus can have similar benefits.” For example, some, but not all, Lactobacillus will offer similar benefits, but “without studying the specific strain, there’s no way of knowing which bacteria provide benefits and which don’t,” he continues.
Read: Precise and conclusive research is what matters most, rather than more CFUs or strains. A probiotic strain with a lower CFU count may be as effective as a dozen strains of all genera in producing a given benefit, as long as all numbers match that benefit that has been shown to be effective in a clinical setting.
A smarter way to buy probiotics
As we can see, navigating the world of probiotics (including all the shady and sometimes downright misleading messages) will require some due diligence. However, your efforts will be worth it if you want to find the best probiotic foods and supplements that actually produce results for your particular concerns. With that said, heed these final tips before you make your next purchase.
1. Know the basics
“Some consumers understand the differences between strains and that not all probiotics are the same, while others believe that all cultures are probiotics that have the same benefit,” says Dr. Freitas. Different strains and blends of probiotics need to be formulated correctly to produce a certain benefit, which can include anything from helping to clear skin, supporting immunity, or promoting regular bowel movements. Find out which benefit you’re looking for the most and take things from there.
2. Look for transparency
“I always say that not all probiotics are created equal,” continues Dr. Freitas. “There are many probiotic products out there that are of questionable quality and make various claims, both in food and in supplements, that are not supported by scientific or clinical studies.”
With that in mind, some brands will be more transparent than others. You’ll want to look for those that not only clearly list the strains, but also provide the evidence to support the benefits their product is supposed to offer. “First, I would recommend consumers check the product label to see if the full name of the probiotic strain is listed,” says Dr. Freitas. “Then check the company’s website to find out if studies have been done and for more information on the specific strains in the product.”
3. Be curious and put your detective skills to work
Even better than taking a company’s marketing copy seriously is to do your own research. Sure, you’ll likely have to wade through some pretty dense terminology and data, but you’ll be more educated and empowered from there. Plus, it’s simpler than you think.
Dr. Freitas suggests doing a quick Google search (tip: copy/paste a strain and add “Pubmed” to the search bar) to get a feel for the terrain. He mentions a few details worth noting, including but not limited to:
- How many studies have been done?
- The sample size of the studies.
- Whether the studies were conducted in healthy participants
Also, it’s great if you can find a study that includes participants from a similar demographic and/or with the same concerns about you. “Study participants should reflect who will actually consume the probiotic if benefit is expected,” concludes Dr. Freitas.