Are Probiotics Dead on Arrival? A Research Review

Are Probiotics Dead on Arrival? A Research Review

| |
| |

More and more consumers worldwide are taking probiotics because of their proven health benefits. We know that probiotics can improve digestion and even reduce inflammation, but because probiotics are living organisms, are they dead by the time they arrive to your house in the mail?

In this article we'll analyze clinical research to give our take on whether probiotics are likely to be dead on arrival, compare the benefits of whole foods probiotics to supplemental probiotics and summarize the research on the health benefits of probiotic supplementation.

We'll also share a third-party testing resource that consumers can use to check if a probiotic brand has as many live probiotics as they claim after shipping.

Are Probiotics Even Alive After Delivery?

Probiotics are living organisms. They’re typically measured in colony-forming units (CFU), and most probiotic supplements contain a CFU figure in the billions.

For probiotics to be effective, they should be alive when consumed. We haven’t come across any medical research suggesting that consuming dead probiotics is beneficial to human health.

But when purchasing a probiotic supplement online, it has to be shipped (from a warehouse it was likely at for months or years) and can be exposed to high temperatures which can cause probiotic death. Even when purchasing a probiotic supplement off-the-shelf in a drugstore or grocery store, that product was still likely warehoused and delivered from elsewhere, which raises the concern of how long probiotics are alive for after manufacturing.

Some probiotic supplements are shelf-stable, meaning they’re stored at room temperature. This may lead to increased rates of probiotic death, because many probiotic strains are sensitive to heat. 

A medical review on two of the most popular probiotic species, lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium spp., found that their health benefits are directly related to what percentage of probiotics survive the manufacturing and storage processes.

A medical review published in the Journal of Functional Foods found that heat levels over 45° Celsius were harmful to probiotic survival, and these temperatures are regularly achieved during supplement manufacturing.

Probiotics aren’t only exposed to stressful conditions during manufacturing, but also during storage, transit and due to degradation over time.

Many supplement warehousing facilities aren’t adequately heat-controlled, and probiotics sitting in hot warehouses for months on end aren’t likely to be very effective. Very few freighting companies have adequate temperature-monitoring technology in our experience, and this is another factor that can cause probiotic death.

So how can consumers ensure that the probiotic supplement they're considering will actually have live probiotics when it reaches their door? We'll explain in the next section.

How Third-Party Testing Can Solve This Issue

ConsumerLab third-party tested probiotic results

There are third-party testing companies that test off-the-shelf probiotics to see if they contain as many live probiotics as their label claims.

The testing company we trust the most is called ConsumerLab, because this company is run by scientists and publishes the full raw data from their tests.

ConsumerLab has published tests on a wide variety of probiotics, and found Nature's Bounty Ultra Strength Probiotic to contain as many live probiotics as the label claims, and also to be free of contaminants like microbes.

We recommend this probiotic because it passed ConsumerLab testing and also is free of questionable additive ingredients like artificial dye that many supplements contain.

Interested consumers can check out Nature's Bounty Ultra Strength Probiotic at this link to its official Amazon listing.

How Probiotics From Foods Resolve the Probiotic Death Issue

One core difference between getting probiotics from dietary supplements and from whole foods is that probiotics in supplements typically die over time, while probiotics in food are exposed to enzymes and other naturally-occurring compounds which actually encourage growth over time.

A medical review published in the Foods journal documents how the fermentation process encourages growth of health-promoting organisms.

Here are a few whole food products rich in probiotics:


Sauerkraut is one of the most popular probiotic foods because it’s cheap, easy to find, and versatile. Because ‘kraut can be stored at room temperature it tends to be a lot cheaper than other probiotics and can be acquired in bulk at many grocery stores.

It's important to choose sauerkraut with a label notice of "contains live and active cultures," because pasteurized kraut (which is heat-treated) won't have the same probiotic benefits as raw kraut.

Bubbies Sauerkraut is our top pick because it's stored in glass, contains no questionable additive ingredients (the only ingredients are cabbage, water and salt), and contains live and active cultures. Here's the official Amazon link to this product.


Kimchi is a fermented cabbage product similar to sauerkraut which is popular in Asian cultures. It tends to be more expensive than sauerkraut and also usually has other spices added.

A medical review published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, describes how kimchi has clinically proven anticancer, antiobesity, anticonstipation and cholesterol reduction benefits.

Chi Kitchen Kimchi is our top pick because it's stored in glass, contains entirely whole food ingredients like Korean radish and red pepper powder. Here's the official Amazon link to this product.


Yogurt is one of the oldest and most popular probiotics. It tends to have less CFU than sauerkraut and kimchi, but is more tolerable and more accessible.

Medical research shows that yogurt consumption is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity. We recommend choosing a yogurt that's free of added sugar and sourced from grass-fed animals, as animal products from grass-fed animals are more nutritionally dense than products from conventionally-raised animals.

Stonyfield Organic Whole Milk Yogurt is our top pick because it's sourced entirely from grass-fed cows and has no questionable additive ingredients like added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Here's the official Amazon link to this product.


Pickles are another probiotic food that can benefit health. It’s important to select fermented pickles, as some brands sell pickles in vinegar which aren’t truly fermented and won’t have any of the probiotic benefits.

Bubbies Pickle Bread & Butter Chips are our top pick as they contain whole food ingredients and are stored in glass. Here's the official Amazon link to this product.

 A video published by TIME highlights ten foods that are naturally rich in probiotics:

Stay up-to-date on our research reviews


There are many factors that can negatively impact probiotics in supplement form, such as heat, storage conditions, transit and time. We recommend only purchasing dietary supplement probiotics if they are proven in third-party tests to contain the amount of live probiotics that their label claims. Otherwise, you may be paying for probiotics that are dead when they reach your door.

For consumers buying probiotics in stores, purchasing refrigerated probiotics may be a better bet than purchasing shelf-stable probiotics, because the refrigeration process preserves live cultures.

Whole foods like yogurt and sauerkraut which are fermented are naturally rich in probiotics, and the probiotic content generally increases over time while the probiotic content in dietary supplements generally decreases over time. Whole food probiotic sources also provide other nutritional benefits.

Illuminate Labs is a proud member of