Here's What You Need To Know About Probiotic Drinks

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Just beyond the fancy waters and pressed juices in your grocery store, there's another type of bottled beverage that could be worth your pennies: probiotic drinks. You've probably heard of probiotic supplements before, and probiotic drinks contain live and active cultures that do basically the same thing. They can be fizzy fermented teas like kombucha, milky yogurts like kefir, or sparkling flavored waters. Some people love the way they taste, but do you need them? Not necessarily, says Vanessa Rissetto, MS, RD, CDN.
Right after birth, your gastrointestinal tract is colonized by a lot of different bacteria, and everyone has their own personal blend that fluctuates over time, Rissetto says. Probiotics are "good" bacteria that could help balance the bacteria in your gut. They can be helpful for people with GI problems (like IBS or lactose intolerance), but more research needs to be done on the amounts that work best on healthy people, because there's so much variation from person to person, says Amanda Kruse, RD, CD.
You can get your probiotics through supplements, foods, or drinks, but most experts agree that real foods and drinks are the best, because your stomach acid can kill supplements before they get to your intestines where the real work happens, Rissetto says. Probiotic foods are also delicious (kimchi and sauerkraut, hello?) and cheaper than a bottle of probiotic pills. If you like the taste, sipping on a probiotic drink can be enough to reap the benefits, but they're not a cure-all magic elixir, says Marci Evans, MS, RD. Here's what you need to know about probiotic drinks and how to find and buy the best ones.
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They're alive!

When a product says, "contains live and active cultures" or "living food," that's referring to the bacteria inside, which are, in fact, living cultures, Rissetto says. (And no need to worry, vegans — we're talking about microscopic bacteria here.) Look for bacteria such as lactobacilli or bifidobacteria on the ingredient labels of fermented dairy foods, Kruse says. Your drink should have at least one billion live cultures and a few different strains of bacteria, Evans says. And if you're trying to treat a specific health problem, like constipation, it might make more sense to take a probiotic supplement that has a specific strain that treats the issue, she says.
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They're good for your belly.

Adding probiotic drinks to your diet is a great way to bring in good bacteria that supports healthy gut function and bacterial diversity (which you want), says Evans. "But supporting a healthy gut microbiome includes more than sipping down probiotic drinks," she says. If you want to really take care of your tummy, you should manage your stress (chronic stress kills healthy bacteria), get quality sleep, exercise moderately, and eat a lot of different foods, she says. "Like anything, you have to look at it from a holistic perspective."
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They can make you kind of drunk.

You'd have to drink a lot of fermented tea (about eight bottles) to feel the same effect of drinking one beer, but there is a little alcohol in kombucha, Rissetto says. Through the process of fermentation, yeast transforms sugar into alcohol and then the bacteria eats most of it, but leaves a little bit behind, Evans says. "Some people who abstain from alcohol choose not to consume kombucha for this very reason," she says. Kombucha has to contain less than 0.5% alcohol to be sold to consumers, and is usually regulated when mass-produced, which is one reason why it's better to buy than DIY, Kruse says.
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There are more probiotic drinks than just kombucha.

Kombucha is the most common type of probiotic drink, but there's also kefir, which is like a yogurt-y drink, and sparkling probiotic drinks, Evans says. "But don’t forget about non-drinkable sources, like fermented veggies," she says. "We could learn a thing or two from the sauerkraut-eating Germans and the fermented soy-consuming Japanese!"

Rissetto says she likes to use these drinks as a snack, and looks for something with a decent amount of protein to keep her full.
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They can be an acquired taste.

Fermented drinks like kombucha can be a little acidic or vinegary, so you might not love the taste at first. Some come flavored, but Rissetto says you should aim to find one that doesn't use artificial sweeteners. The sparkling fermented waters can be lighter in taste than kombucha, so they might be a good entry point.
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They aren't perfect.

More is not better when it comes to probiotics, Evans says. "These bacteria can be powerful and everyone’s personal bacterial make-up is quite unique," she says. Evans recommends starting slow by drinking a few ounces with a meal and seeing how it feels. "Guzzling 16 ounces on an empty stomach could have you running for the toilet, and may leave you feeling ill," she says. Also, keep in mind that the amount of probiotics can vary from beverage to beverage, Kruse says. "Unfortunately, these amounts aren’t regulated, and since more research is needed to see what level is really functional, I would suggest staying away from fancy, probiotic drinks with large price tags," she says.

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