nutrition

What Are Probiotic Foods, the Benefits, and How to Eat More of Them

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

6 min read

Person touching their stomach

Fermented foods or those that have cultures in their ingredients are typically sources of probiotics.

What are probiotic foods?

Probiotic foods are a beneficial part of a healthy diet. But what foods have the most probiotic benefits? And how can you easily incorporate more probiotic foods into your diet? Fermented foods or those that have cultures in their ingredients are typically sources of probiotics. Here’s a rundown of many probiotic-rich foods to consider adding to your shopping list.

What are the benefits of probiotic foods?

Your gut (the digestive tract) is filled with good bacteria that helps break down foods, aiding in proper digestion and bowel function. These good bacteria may also positively influence other systems, from the immune system to hormones to mental health. We’re just beginning to understand how much our gut flora impacts our health, wellness, and longevity. Although our body naturally has a population of good gut bacteria from birth, processed food, stress, and other unhealthy lifestyle choices can cause bad bacteria to overgrow, leading to an imbalance. Foods rich in probiotic bacteria can replenish the body’s good bacteria. It’s important to be consistent with the intake of probiotics to experience the benefits and maintain healthy gut balance.

Yogurt

Yogurt is probably the best known and most popular probiotic food. Like all probiotic foods, it contains live and active cultures. However, not all yogurts contain the same amount or variety. Greek and Icelandic Skyr yogurt, for instance, typically have more probiotic benefits than traditional yogurt. Be sure to read nutrition labels, though, because some fruit-flavored yogurts or those with chocolate or candy pieces can be high in sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 25g of sugar and that men consume no more than 35g.

It’s also important to pay attention to the specific strains of bacteria found in different types of yogurt. Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12, for instance, was shown to help improve the defecation, intestinal microflora, and intestinal environment of study participants who consumed it in their yogurt.

Kimchi

Kimchi is known as the national food of South Korea. This beloved side dish is a spicy blend of fermented vegetables such as cabbage, scallions, and radishes. It contains lactobacilli, the same probiotic bacteria found in dairy, making it a good choice for those on a plant-based diet wanting to avoid dairy.

Soft cheese

Feta, cottage cheese, some Bleu cheese, and cream cheese all have probiotics. When looking for cheeses with probiotics, it’s best to focus on cheeses that have been aged but not heated (heat kills bacteria).

Miso Soup

Miso literally means “fermented beans” in Japanese, so that’s a good sign that this Japanese food staple is a rich source of probiotics. Miso soup is made with fermented soybeans. Beyond the popular soup, it can also be purchased as a paste, which can be used in broths, stir fry, marinades and salad dressings. Be mindful of the sodium levels of miso products, as miso soup is often generously salted.

Sauerkraut

You may think of the classic American hot dogs and sauerkraut when you picture this fermented cabbage, but this topping dates much further back in Asia. Sauerkraut is said to have come from China nearly two millennia ago, although its current name is German for sour cabbage. Just remember, the good bacteria that make a food a probiotic are sensitive to heat. Since sauerkraut is often served warm, it’s best to cook at a very low temperature, never exceeding 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sourdough bread

Sourdough bread uses a fermentation process to give it its distinct flavor and texture, but technically speaking it’s not a probiotic food. Why? Heat. Sad to say, the thriving colonies of probiotic bacteria in sourdough’s dough are unable to survive the baking process. They do leave behind a nutritiously better bread than white bread, however. Thanks to the fermentation process, fully baked sourdough bread contains less gluten, has more absorbable nutrients, and offers prebiotics that help nourish gut bacteria.

What about probiotic drinks?

Kefir

Kefir is a thick, smoothie-like fermented milk drink that dates back to ancient Turkey. It often contains a multitude of bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Streptococcus thermophilus, and Lactobacillus delbrueckii. One study found kefir with fruit to be helpful in reducing the number of days participants suffered from digestive issues. Like yogurt, kefir can be high in sugar content, so it’s important to be mindful of the amount consumed each day.

Kombucha

Take good bacteria, a little yeast and some sugar, add to brewed tea and let sit for a few weeks. Here you have the makings of this trending drink, which has gained popularity for its probiotic power. If you’ve ever heard it called “mushroom tea,” that's how the drink thickens to appear like a mushroom as it ferments. It is important to note, however, that just because bacteria grow in a food, they aren’t necessarily probiotic bacteria. Kombucha, for instance, grows a variety of bacteria, but most are not the probiotic strains that you would find in yogurt or kimchi. The fermentation process does create lactic acid bacteria, which are also beneficial, as well as an array of antioxidants, acetic acid, and polyphenols.

Other questions:

What are prebiotic foods?

While probiotic foods deliver “good bacteria” to the body, prebiotic foods nourish this good bacteria. These foods help good gut bacteria to grow and reproduce. Foods that are good sources of prebiotics include:

  • Chicory root
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Onions
  • Bananas
  • Asparagus

It can be helpful to pair probiotic foods, like yogurt, with prebiotic-rich foods, like fruit. Pairing these foods can be a good system for remembering to include both prebiotics and probiotics in your daily diet.

What if I’m trying to restrict dairy?

There are a wide variety of fermented and cultured foods that contain probiotics without using dairy. Yogurt, for example, is now available in a wide variety of plant-based options such as oat and almond. There are also other source of probiotics which do not use dairy ingredients, such as:

  • Pickled Vegetables
  • Tempeh
  • Pickles
  • Natto

What probiotic supplement should I take?

A probiotic supplement can make it easier to stay consistent with your intake of live and active cultures. Many foods are good sources of probiotics, but a probiotic supplement can include the same probiotic bacteria. Because benefits can subside when you stop consuming probiotics, it’s important to consistently provide your body with more probiotic bacteria. A probiotic supplement is an easy way to do so. It’s always a good idea to seek medical advice from your health care provider before beginning a probiotic supplement. Care/of’s Harmonious Gut Probiotic Blend features L. acidophilus, L. rhamnosus and B. lactis, three strains of good bacteria. This collection of probiotic bacteria supports nutrient absorption, digestion, and the immune system.

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