What Are CFUs—& How Many Do I Need in My Probiotic Supplement?

Written by Krista Bugden
Medically Reviewed by Felicia Newell, M.S., RDN

October 3, 2023

Colony-forming units (CFUs) are a metric used to determine the quantity of living microorganisms—including bacteria and yeast—that are present in a product. This concept is predominantly linked to probiotics—supplements and foods enriched with live and beneficial bacteria.

If you've ever shopped for a probiotic supplement, you've probably come across the term “CFU” on a label. But what does CFU stand for? Does a higher CFU probiotic mean a better one? And how can you find out if you're taking a CFU that's too high or too low for your age and needs? 

In this article, we'll tackle these questions and work to dispel some of the myths surrounding probiotics so that you can make the best decision for your health needs.

What Are CFUs?

CFUs, or Colony-Forming Units, are a measurement used to quantify the amount of viable microorganisms, such as bacteria or yeast, in a product or sample. This term is often associated with probiotics, which are supplements containing live beneficial bacteria (1). 

As you might already know, probiotics are renowned for their role in supporting a healthy balance of gut bacteria, aiding in digestion, enhancing nutrient absorption, and boosting the immune system (2). 

Simply put, the CFU count in probiotic supplements indicates the level of live, active microorganisms present in each dose. A higher CFU count usually suggests a higher concentration of probiotics, which can be more beneficial in promoting gut health. 

However, it’s important to note that more CFUs do not always equate to better quality or effectiveness. The strains of bacteria and other factors further determine a probiotic's performance.

So, how do scientists even measure this?

Usually, it involves diluting a sample, spreading it on a laboratory tray or plate, and counting the visible colonies of microorganisms that develop. Each colony represents one viable microorganism from the original sample. This allows scientists to express the count as CFUs per milliliter (CFU/mL) or per gram (CFU/g). 

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Why Are Probiotics So Important for Gut Health?

When you eat probiotics, such as those found in sauerkraut or yogurt, you are actually eating live bacteria! This might sound a little gross, but your gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria—both good and bad (3). The balance of these bacteria is vital for proper gut function and the many roles your gut plays in the body.

A balanced and diverse microbiome supports nutrient absorption, immunity, and the integrity of your intestinal barrier.

Probiotics help maintain this delicate balance while keeping potentially harmful bacteria in check (4). They also contribute to the production of vital substances like short-chain fatty acids, which play a critical role in metabolic function and energy (5, 6).

So, where do CFUs come into the picture here?

CFUs enhance probiotic effectiveness by determining the number of viable microorganisms in a probiotic supplement. A higher CFU count generally implies a greater concentration of live, active beneficial bacteria. In turn, this may offer increased gut health effect.

What to Know About CFUs & Gut Health…

A balanced gut microbiome is a foundational element for overall well-being, consisting of a delicate balance between beneficial bacteria and bacteria that is typically harmless in small amounts, but can be harmful if allowed to grow in excessive numbers. As Hippocrates once said, “All disease begins in the gut.” And he wasn’t exactly wrong.

If bad bacteria break through the gut barrier and enter the body, we can face widespread inflammation, amongst other health issues.

At the end of the day, CFUs help maintain this balance. They determine the amount of beneficial bacteria introduced into the gut through the probiotics we consume. An appropriate amount of CFUs can help enrich the gut flora, fostering an environment that is beneficial for digestive health, immune function, and overall well-being (7).

In short, increasing good gut bacteria can help:

  • Break down the food we eat
  • Eliminate waste from the body
  • Improve nutrient absorption
  • Enhance the production of various enzymes
  • Prevent the overgrowth of “bad” bacteria
  • Maintain the integrity of your gut lining

Various factors can impact our gut health, including stress, antibiotics, and a poor diet. The result is usually a weakened immune system and digestive distress. However, by ensuring we replenish our gut microbiome with probiotics containing a good CFU count, we can foster good gut health and overall health.

Survival of CFUs

Interestingly, the journey of probiotics from the moment you eat them to them entering the gut is a challenging one. These probiotics must survive the harsh environment of the stomach—evading stomach acid, bile salts, and pancreaticve enzymes before reaching their end destination: the small intestines (8). 

Inevitably, some CFUs don’t make it. Yet, some do. And this is the importance of consuming a source of probiotics with an adequate CFU count.

At the same time, many probiotic supplements and foods have built-in strategies or technologies to ensure most of the CFUs reach the small intestines intact. For example, supplements and foods may contain probiotics that are more likely to survive the journey than ones that aren’t. They may also be consumed with prebiotics, which may have protective effects and help “good” bacteria flourish in the small intestines.

A bottle of NativePath probiotic

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With 10 unique Super-Strains and 82 billion Colony-Forming Units (CFUs) to support healthy digestion, regularity, and nutrient absorption while easing gas and bloating.

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Do Different Probiotic Strains Matter?

Decreased gut diversity is associated with various chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity (9). This means having a range of probiotic strains might be more beneficial than only a few. 

Different strains of probiotics can offer different benefits and a more robust and resilient gut microbiome. In other words, it’s not just the CFU count that matters but also the number of strains present in the supplement or food.

How Many CFUs Do I Need in a Probiotic?

Generally, a daily probiotic supplement can range from 1 billion to 10 billion CFUs (10).

When You Need a Higher CFU Count

Those dealing with specific health conditions or those looking to address disruptions in gut flora may need a higher CFU count.

For instance, individuals with gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may benefit from higher CFU counts (11). Similarly, after a course of antibiotics—which can significantly deplete the beneficial bacteria in the gut—a higher concentration of CFUs may be advantageous to help reestablish a balanced gut microbiome.

Additionally, other health conditions that may benefit from increased CFUs include constipation, urinary tract infections, and even gum infections.

When You Need a Lower CFU Count

There are generally two situations in which a lower CFU is preferable to a higher CFU. 

Children require a smaller dosage due to their size and the fact that their digestive systems are still developing and can be sensitive. While there is no set dosage for children, a general rule of thumb is to use one-quarter the recommended adult dosage for children up to 6 years of age, half the adult dosage for children 6 to 12 years of age, and a full adult dosage for teens. It’s best to consult your child’s pediatrician before adding a probiotic to their diet.

Outside of age, some adults do need lower probiotic concentrations. This is especially important for those who are already very sensitive to supplements or have very inflamed gastrointestinal tracts. In these cases, probiotics with high CFU counts may cause digestive discomfort, bloating, or gas.

And remember: Always consult your healthcare provider before starting a probiotic supplement.

Probiotic Foods vs. Supplements: Which Is Best?

This depends on you. Generally, probiotic supplements tend to have higher CFUs. However, probiotic-rich foods like Greek yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, or other fermented vegetables, can also offer similar benefits. Ultimately, it comes down to which one is the easier habit to maintain day after day.

A bottle of NativePath probiotic

Say Goodbye to Gut Problems

With 10 unique Super-Strains and 82 billion Colony-Forming Units (CFUs) to support healthy digestion, regularity, and nutrient absorption while easing gas and bloating.

Add to Cart
Krista Bugden
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Krista Bugden

Krista Bugden is a freelance writer with a BS in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa. She spent 5 years working as a kinesiologist, giving her the first-hand experience she needed to write well-researched, scientific, and informative blogs.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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