Cultures and Fermentation in Foods:
Fast Facts and Health Benefits

Health-Conscious Consumers Are Driving the Fermentation Trend

One of the most popular and growing food trends in 2017 is cultured and fermented foods. Fermentation enjoys a long history, dating back as far as 6000 B.C., to a time when extending and preserving the shelf life of food was critical in the absence of refrigeration. Today, the surge in popularity exists not only for preservation, but also for potential health benefits.

What is Fermentation?

Fermentation is the chemical breakdown that takes place when beneficial bacteria, yeast strains, or other microorganisms break down the starch or sugars of the food into alcohol and organic acids.1 Live and active cultures refer to living organisms that ferment or transform the basic food. Strains such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Streptococcus thermophilus are commonly used. Fermenting and culturing are terms that are often used interchangeably. Some examples of fermented foods are kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, and yogurt.

Yogurt and Fermented Dairy Products

Yogurt and other fermented dairy products are made when pasteurized milk is fermented using cultures. Two cultures, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, are required to make yogurt, but it can also contain additional bacteria for taste and texture. As the bacteria in yogurt converts the lactose (milk sugar) to lactic acid, the milk thickens and produces the tangy taste characteristic of yogurt. Depending on the type of fermented dairy product, the bacteria or yeast strains used to ferment the milk can be different.

Due to the live and active cultures and the process of fermentation, yogurt and fermented dairy products are more easily digestible alternatives to milk; on average, they contain less lactose because the cultures continue to break down lactose in the intestinal tract. The live and active cultures in yogurt may allow lactose-intolerant individuals to enjoy fermented dairy products with fewer associated symptoms. 2


  • It provides a source of live, active cultures (unless heat-treated)

  • It affects the food’s taste, texture, and digestibility

  • It may increase the vitamins and bioactive compounds in foods

  • It increases shelf-life and food safety

How Do Live and Active Cultures Differ from Probiotics?

Live and active cultures are living microorganisms that make unique fermented products with various health benefits.

Probiotic cultures are living microorganisms that provide specific health benefits such as supporting healthy digestive and immune functions. They have also been shown to contribute to the maintenance of a balanced gut microbiota, which is important for the proper functioning of the digestive system and the entire body.


Choosing probiotic foods can be a little tricky. While many foods contain live and active cultures, not all cultures are probiotics. Some cultures may sound similar, but they can be very different. It is important to look for the species and strains of probiotics used in each product. Some of the most common species of probiotics to look for are:

  • Lactobacillus (examples: L. plantarum, L. casei, L. reuteri, L. acidophilius)

  • Bifidobacterium (examples: B. bifidum, B. lactis, B. animalis, B. longum)

  • Among these species, some of the studied probiotic strains are:

  • Lactobacillus casei DN-114 001

  • Bifidobacterium animalis lactis DN-173 010/CNCM I-2494

  • Bifidobacterium BB-12®

The Importance of Healthy Gut Flora

Yogurt cultures and certain probiotics may help to promote a healthy, balanced gut flora.

Each person’s microbiota (gut microflora) consists of an assortment of microorganisms, such as bacteria, yeast, and fungi that live in the intestinal tract. When the intestinal microbiota is out of balance – due to stress, poor diet, medications, hormonal changes, or intestinal upset – that imbalance may impact overall health.

Making positive dietary changes and regularly consuming friendly bacteria from probiotic foods may positively influence the human gut microbiota.4,5 For example, yogurt cultures and certain other fermented foods may increase counts of beneficial bacteria and improve digestive system health when consumed regularly. They may also play a role in many body functions, such as weight management, the gut-brain connection, and metabolic health.6

Fermented Foods and the Gut-Brain Connection

The digestive system, gut flora and their connection with the brain, also known as the gut-brain axis, is the subject of ongoing research. While there is much to learn on this topic, recent research shows there are links between the digestive system and physical and mental health.

Adding probiotics, like those found in some yogurts and fermented foods, to a daily routine can help maintain the gut microbiota balance needed for overall digestive health, and balancing digestive health may have a positive impact on how patients think and feel. Research suggests that, when the microbiota (gut flora) is out of balance due to diminished levels of friendly bacteria, it may negatively affect mood and overall health.7 A perfect example is the feeling of “butterflies” in the stomach. This connection supports the finding that digestive discomfort may impair both physical and psychological well-being. In other words, “When your gut feels good, so do you.”


This Breakfast Parfait with Fresh Fruit combines delicious yogurt, granola, and fruit for a quick and easy jumpstart to the day. It provides protein, fiber, and a variety of vitamins and minerals, such as calcium and vitamin C.


1. Battock M, Azam-Ali S. Fermented Fruits and Vegetables: A Global Perspective. FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin No.134. 1998

2. Lomer MC, Parkes GC, Sanderson JD. Review article: lactose intolerance in clinical practice—myths and realities. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2008;27:93–103.

3. http://isappscience.org/home

4. Flint HJ. The impact of nutrition on the human microbiome. Nutrition Reviews. 2012.

5. Scott KP et al. The influence of diet on the gut microbiota. Pharmacological Research: The Official Journal of the Italian Pharmacological Society. 2013.

6. Marco M et al. Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond. Current Opinion in Biotechnology. 2017. 44:94-102.

7. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org

POSTED ON: May 17, 2017