Probiotics -what you need to know

From fermented foods, kombucha tea, ingestible beauty powders and even topical skincare, probiotic fortified products are a booming business.

Regular probiotic intake has been shown to promote the healthy balance of gut bacteria which is linked to a wide range of health benefits such as; clear skin, weight loss, immune health, IBS, gut microbiota modulation and may even improve some mental conditions and heart health. But be warned, not all probiotic products are created equally so here is what you need to know when buying probiotics.

Most probiotics (except for a select group) are likely to degrade until they reach the intestines, an environment that supports their growth.

The degradation process begins steadily from the moment they are manufactured. The process can be expedited by:

  1. Heat exposure

  2. Moisture exposure (humidity)

  3. Manufacturing methods

Different brands of supplements and capsules contain anywhere from 1 to 30 billion colony forming units (CFU’s), which should be listed on the ingredients list of any product claiming therapeutic probiotic properties. If the product does not list the amount of colony forming units and the probiotic strains then it is likely that the product is of no therapeutic benefit. Most commonly produced probiotics are so fragile that approximately 90% of the bacteria will die before reaching the consumer. Also (depending on the strain used) some will be destroyed in the acidity environment of the intestinal tract. This is why high dose refrigerated probiotic supplements or capsules are recommended by professionals over probiotic foods or drinks to ensure that the probiotics that do survive are in high enough amounts to benefit the host.

Do probiotics need refrigeration?

The simple answer? Yes!

The majority of probiotic strains do need refrigeration in order for them to stay active. There are a couple of strains that do not need refrigeration however processed foods, beauty powders and topical beauty products are highly likely to contain strains of bacteria that are not active due to their fragile state. Yes the product contains probiotics but no they are too fragile to survive leaving you with a dud health product and an empty wallet! In general circumstances, keeping probiotics under refrigeration increases shelf life and maintains the effectiveness of their health benefits. Most of the commercially available strains of probiotics are inherently fragile and must be protected from heat. The longer the probiotic is left unrefrigerated, the shorter the shelf life of the product and the more likelihood that the probiotic benefits will be null and void (they die off). There are some companies that use sophisticated freeze drying techniques such as lyophilisation which allows the probiotic to be more stable at room temperature. The actual manufacturing process however can also damage the delicate bacteria and often microbial suspensions are added such as trehalose, sodium ascorbate and skin milk to increase the viability of the microorganisms.

In a review by the Scientific Journal Immunology and Cell Biology, commonly used probiotic bacteria such as: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, longum, Saccharomyces boulardii were found to be too fragile to survive the rigours of the manufacturing process, heat and the acidity of the intestinal tract.

Temperature is crucial in maintaining the probiotic bacteria. At 20˚C, viability decreases 10-15% per month, above 27˚C losses are doubled or more. If storage temperature is between 2-4˚C (approx.) probiotic survival increase (specifically L. acidophilus and B. bifidum) however large-scale losses must still be anticipated. In the US researchers analysed the contents of 20 store-bought probiotic supplement brands and found that 20% of the products contained no viable probiotic bacteria at all. Just because a product is stored in the fridge therefore doesn’t always guarantee its quality. Manufacturing, transportation and warehouse storage all greatly affect the efficacy of the product. As a guide, common probiotics known as “Lactic-Acid Based Bacteria” or LAB probiotics will be fragile under normal conditions. Look for ingredients on any probiotic supplement or food beginning with a prefix of “L.” or “B.” and it is likely that these probiotics are fragile and susceptible to heat or environmental stress. Examples: L. acidophilus, B. lactis.

There is a strain of probiotics that are resilient to environmental stress, these are known as SBO probiotics or soil-based organisms. SBO probiotics are spore forming bacteria that are naturally found in the soil. These spores are protected by a hard coating that makes them resistant to heat and acidity. Most commonly these probiotics come from the Bacillus family. Examples: Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus coagulans.

Advancements in encapsulation and freeze-drying technologies to preserve the probiotic count in the manufacturing and transportation processes are key initiatives for the food industry, however this is not an easy or inexpensive feat. Freeze dried probiotics are also susceptible to moisture contamination causing probiotic degradation if not correctly stored. This why the chemist keeps most of the probiotic supplements in the fridge and not on the shelf…

In summary, the most commonly used probiotics should be refrigerated from the beginning of the manufacturing process to final consumption by a consumer. This means temperature control from manufacture to warehouse to distribution to retailer to consumer. If you are not sure under what conditions your probiotic arrived in your hands, there is a strong likely that you may not be getting the probiotic effect you were hoping for.


"Growing Potential." Nutritional Outlook. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 July 2015.

Kailasapathy, K., & Chin, J. (2000). Survival and therapeutic potential of probiotic organisms with reference to Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium spp. Immunology and Cell Biology, 78(1), 80–8. doi:10.1046/j.1440-1711.2000.00886.

S Berman, D Spicer. Safety and Reliability of Lactobacillus Supplements in Seattle, Washington (A Pilot Study). The Internet Journal of Alternative Medicine. 2003 Volume 1 Number 2.

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