Understanding Probiotic Terms: From Spore-forming to CFUs

When you shop for probiotics, are you stymied by a parade of terms that make little sense? You’re not alone!

Not all probiotics are the same, so it’s important to understand the labels on your supplements just like you’d be reading about your food. With that said, there are plenty of confusing terms that frequently pop up on labels. Let’s unpack two of the most common head-scratchers.

Less is Spore

When it comes to probiotics, it’s not always the more, the merrier, especially when discussing spore-forming probiotics. For instance, most probiotics contain lactic acid bacteria like a Lactobacillus. These types of bacteria are most notable for ‘repopulating the gut’ with beneficial bacteria.

Think of them like the seeds you need to plant for a garden. In contrast, spore-forming bacteria, commonly seen on labels as Bacillus, act as fertilizer or essentially a catalyst that helps promote the growth of the beneficial bacteria.

Spore-forming probiotics are a type of bacteria derived from the environment, usually the soil, that is resilient in heat and acidic environments, thereby allowing it to travel nearly the entire digestive tract.

Because of this, you don’t necessarily need as many to impact the gut. A little goes a long way!

For instance, my friends at Zenwise® have a Digestive Enzymes blend that contains 1 billion CFU spore-forming bacteria (B.subtilis). This amount tends to be on the lower end of dosage compared to other probiotic supplements that can contain more than 100 billion CFU. But the CFU tally is not always a good marker of probiotic effectiveness.

What the heck is a CFU anyway?

Have you ever picked up a probiotic supplement and checked the back of the label? You might see something that says “CFU,” followed by a number ranging from 1 billion to over 100 billion.

What does it all mean?

First, let’s define CFU, or Colony Forming Unit, which is the term used to measure how many living bacteria and/or fungi cells are in each recommended dose. However, this does not always indicate the number of organisms that will arrive in the gut. Many factors impact the survival of these organisms, like heat and the acidity level in the stomach.

Determining the number of CFUs in a probiotic that is right for you can be tricky. The gut is like a thumbprint, it is completely unique to you, so some may benefit from many organisms while others only a few. Plus, it’s always helpful to understand the various types of probiotics included in a supplement, as not all of them travel the digestive tract the same way. For instance, spore-forming probiotics are much more resilient than lactic acid bacteria like a Lactobacillus. This means you may not need as many CFUs to receive health benefits.

Fairy Gutmother® Advice

Now, you may study the Digestive Enzymes label and see it contains only 1 billion CFUs and you're asking how such a small amount can be beneficial for my gut…" Rest assured that this specific spore, DE111®, can withstand the heat and acidic environment in the gut. Importantly, clinical research even shows that nearly all the listed organisms make it to the gut. This means you don’t necessarily need as many CFUs to receive positive benefits!

Therefore, it may be prudent to start with fewer CFUs and then increase the amount over time if necessary. Sometimes more bacteria can cause adverse reactions like diarrhea and bloating. It’s wise to work with a trusted healthcare professional to help determine the type and amount of probiotic that’s best for you.

Written by Our Partner, Fairy Gutmother®