The Real Deal with Probiotic Drinks

Should you give 'em a shot? Experts weigh in on the benefits of probiotic drinks.

photo of two bottles of yakult yogurt, a probiotic drink
Photo: EndlessJune / Getty Images.

Probiotics are super buzzy among health fanatics for a reason: There's a lot of emerging research surrounding the bacteria's benefits. Early studies have looked into probiotics' effects on everything from cancer to heart disease to the immune system, showing evidence that regularly consuming probiotics might lower your risk of certain diseases. But what's the deal with probiotic drinks, and are they the best way to be getting your daily dosage? (See also: 5 Legit Benefits of Probiotics — and How You Should Take Them)

Why Probiotic Drinks Are Everywhere

According to a Beverage Industry report, probiotic drinks and other "functional beverages" are the hottest bottled beverages to claim space in your grocer's refrigerator section. Labels often claim "detoxifying" and "energy-boosting" benefits, which make them even more alluring.

While the FDA hasn't approved any health claims for any probiotics, and these "good bacteria" aren't considered essential to a person's diet, probiotics have become important in maintaining a healthful gut and stronger immunity, says Jackie Newgent, R.D.N., C.D.N., author of The With or Without Meat Cookbook. "Probiotics help maintain the natural balance of organisms in our intestines and can help treat and potentially prevent GI issues such as diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and those resulting from antibiotic treatment," she says. (More: You May Not Need to Complete a Full Course of Antibiotics After All)

Where to Find Probiotics

You don't have to take a daily supplement to get enough of this beneficial bacteria. Probiotics are found in yogurt and other fermented dairy products such as kefir, naturally aged cheese such as Gouda, fermented soybean foods such as miso and tempeh, naturally fermented sour pickles and cabbage such as sauerkraut and kimchi, sourdough bread, and the fermented tea kombucha, says Newgent.

"You can get plenty of probiotics from foods you eat," notes Newgent. "If you're regularly eating foods rich in probiotics, purchasing these probiotic drinks isn't necessary, especially if you're on a tight food budget," she adds. (A 32-ounce bottle of kefir has four servings and can cost $20-40.) But it's certainly fine to opt for a probiotic beverage, especially if you have minor digestive issues or don't regularly consume natural food sources of these good bacteria, says Newgent.

While there isn't a daily recommended probiotics quota yet, you should try including one serving of probiotic-rich food daily, such as one cup of plain yogurt, suggests Newgent. If you prefer to get probiotics through yogurt, look for products that carry the International Dairy Foods Association's "Live & Active Culture" seal. This seal means the refrigerated yogurt product contains 100 million or more cultures per gram at production time and the frozen yogurt product contains 10 million or more cultures per gram at production time, says Newgent. If you see this seal, you'll know you're getting a significant amount of probiotics. Obtaining the seal is voluntary, so if you don't see it, make sure the label of your yogurt or frozen yogurt contains the phrase "live and active cultures" so you know it contains the healthy bacteria that help your gut.

What Kind of Probiotic Drinks to Buy

If you choose to go the probiotic drinks route, fermented milk beverage kefir is a healthy drinkable probiotic recommended by both Newgent and Erin Palinski-Wade, R.D., C.D.E., author of The 2-Day Diabetes Diet.

The brand Lifeway Kefir has a wide range of probiotic-rich products that are also excellent sources of protein, calcium, and vitamin D, making it highly recommended by Newgent. She also gives a thumbs up to GoodBelly's StraightShot probiotic drink because it's certified organic and contains no added sugars. (It's a dairy-free oat milk beverage, so it's a probiotic option that's good for vegans.)

"If you prefer to drink your probiotics, make sure the label mentions the strains of probiotics it contains as well as the CFUs (colony forming units) to know how much probiotic you are actually getting," says Palinski-Wade. Looking for a number (for instance Bifidobacterium bifidum W23) indicates that it's a strain-specific type, which tends to be well-researched and of higher quality.

For daily use, experts recommend probiotics with 5 to 15 billion CFUs per serving since less may be ineffective, and long-term use of very high doses hasn't been well studied. But since everyone's microbiome is different, it might mean trying a few different probiotic brands until you find the one that gives you the biggest benefit. (Here's how to find the best probiotic for you.)

What Probiotic Drinks Can — and Can't — Do

Probiotics can't... digestive miracles in minutes. If you're hoping that chugging a probiotic drink will help you "detox" after a particularly indulgent weekend or "clean your system" so you feel more regular, know that taking any kind of probiotic won't produce an immediate bowel movement like taking a laxative would, notes Palinski-Wade. "However, over a period of time, regular consumption can help to improve regularity, decrease GI bloat, and combat constipation," she says.

Probiotics can… a great complement to your fitness routine. If you're regularly following a strenuous training routine, you could be suppressing your immune system and making your body more susceptible to infection. Since probiotics can help to strengthen the immune system, consuming them regularly can benefit athletes and avid exercisers alike, says Palinski-Wade. And probiotic drinks could be a great option for post-workout fueling, especially if you're on the go.

The Bottom Line on Probiotic Drinks

Remember that too much of a good thing isn't always better. While probiotics can be beneficial to your health, if you're eating multiple foods and beverages that contain probiotics along with supplements, you can potentially throw off the balance of bacteria in your intestines, says Palinski-Wade. If you choose to supplement your diet with probiotics, it's best to reach for food first and know how much you are consuming. If you want to consider probiotic supplements, speak with your dietitian or physician about what dosage is appropriate for you.

And if you're already getting enough of the good bacteria, there's no need to add a probiotic drink to the mix. "Don't be obsessed about probiotics or think they can turn an unhealthy diet into a healthful one," says Newgent. "Often if you're focusing on eating a nutrient-rich, plant-focused, whole food–based diet, you'll probably be getting everything you need for good gut health," she adds.

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