11 Probiotic Foods That Are Great For Your Gut
When you hear the word probiotics, your mind may immediately jump to supplements. While supplements are certainly an easy and effective way to get a daily dose of good bacteria, there are also a number of different probiotic foods that can support a healthy gut.
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These foods, usually classified as “fermented foods,” provide many of the same benefits of probiotic supplements, like improved digestive health, lower cholesterol levels, and better immune function.* And since they’re made from healthy foods like cucumbers and cabbage, they have other nutritional benefits too.
If you’re looking for a way to improve your gut and your overall health through your diet, start by including some or all of these probiotic foods.
Yogurt is probably the most well-known, and easily accessible, probiotic food out there. It’s made by combining milk or cream with live, active cultures—another term for probiotics.
Different yogurts contain varying types of probiotics, but some of the most common are Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium lactis, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and Lactobacillus paracasei. In many cases, yogurt manufacturers will list exactly which probiotics are in each type of yogurt.
Research has indicated that yogurt may improve intestinal transit time (read: help you go number two more quickly and efficiently), boost the part of your immune system that originates in your gut, and alleviate symptoms from lactose intolerance.
But keep in mind that not all yogurts are created equally. When choosing a yogurt, opt for a plain, unsweetened variety. Bonus points if it’s grass-fed.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink that’s probably best described as a thin drinkable yogurt. It’s made by combining different yeasts and beneficial bacteria, collectively called “kefir grains,” with milk proteins.
The resulting drink contains a large number of different strains of Lactobacilli bacteria as well as 23 different species of beneficial yeasts.
In addition to better digestion and gut health, a 2019 report in Nutrients points out that drinking kefir may:
- Reduce inflammation
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Lower blood pressure
- Promote healthy blood sugar and insulin levels
- Improve allergies
As with yogurt, Martin Singh, M.D., an integrative gastroenterologist, says, “just make sure to avoid kefir with added sugar and flavorings; plain, full-fat varieties have the most benefit.”
In its basic form, sauerkraut is a fermented food made by combining salt with cabbage.
Although there are many different strains of probiotics found in sauerkraut, the most common tend to be Lactobacillus mesenteroides, Lactobacillus plantarum, and Lactobacillus brevis.
Researchers from a study in Functional Foods in Health & Disease tested the amount of probiotics in different quantities of sauerkraut and found that a two-tablespoon serving can give you all of the probiotics that you need for the entire day.
But if you want to reap the probiotic benefits of sauerkraut, you can’t just grab any jar off the shelf. Pasteurized, processed sauerkraut has little to no viable bacteria left in it. It’s raw, refrigerated sauerkraut you want.
Miso is a fermented paste made by combining soybeans with salt and a fungus called koji—the same fungus used to make sake.
Like sauerkraut, miso is loaded with lactic acid bacteria probiotics, but it also contains Tetragenococcus halophilus and Tetragenococcus thermophilus, two probiotics that play major roles in supporting your immune system.
Keep in mind that not all pickles are made the same way. Raw, fermented pickles are made with water and salt, while some commercial brands are made with vinegar. Functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman M.D. points out that “[vinegar] kills the live bacteria, defeating the purpose of fermentation." He adds, "When you buy fermented foods, make sure they were prepared naturally, without the use of vinegar."
As pickles sit in your refrigerator, they can also lose their probiotic potency. To reap the most benefits from your pickles, make sure to eat them within two to four months.
6. Green olives
Green olives are an often overlooked probiotic food that are actually teeming with two species of Lactobacillus bacteria: Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus pentosus, both of which are categorized as lactic acid bacteria.
Lactobacillus plantarum has been shown to help support your immune system, reduce the risk of tumors, and lower cholesterol levels while Lactobacillus pentosus can help fight off infections from potentially-harmful bacteria.
There is a caveat though. You have to make sure the olives are cured in brine and not plain water. The good news is that most store-bought olives fit the bill. An easy way to check is by looking at the ingredient list. If water and salt are both listed, the olives are most likely cured in brine. A 2019 study in Frontiers in Microbiology adds that Spanish-style green olives tend to have the most bacterial diversity.
Tempeh, which originates in Indonesia, is traditionally made from fermented soybeans, but it may also include other types of beans or whole grains.
In addition to the general benefits of probiotics, tempeh also acts as a prebiotic, or a food source for the good bacteria that already live in your gut. Soy tempeh has been shown to increase the amounts of Lactobacillus bacteria in your digestive tract, while bean tempeh boosts Bifidobacterium species.
The bitter taste of natto may take some getting used to, but the potential benefits are worth it. Natto is a Japanese fermented food that’s made from combining soybeans with Bacillus subtilis, a spore-forming bacterium that acts as both a probiotic and a prebiotic.
Research shows that in addition to improving digestion, Bacillus subtilis may help your body reduce inflammation.
Spore-forming bacteria are gaining a lot more attention because they seem to survive the digestive tract better than other types of probiotic bacteria. They’re also more resistant to processing during food manufacturing.
Kombucha isn’t really a food—it’s a fermented tea made by combining black tea, green tea, and sugar with a specific combination of bacteria and yeast called a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). But since it’s so rich in probiotics, it’s earned a rightful place on this list.
Most kombuchas are loaded with Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bacteria and Saccharomyces boulardii and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, two types of beneficial yeasts. And as far as health benefits go, kombucha has been linked to:
- Supported immune function
- Balanced hormones
- Improved heart health
- Better gut health
Plus, it comes in all kinds of delicious and creative flavors, like ginger, cranberry, and blueberry, so you can find one that you really love.
In its basic form, kimchi is a combination of napa cabbage, Korean radishes, and probiotic bacteria. There are several different types of bacteria involved in the fermentation process to make kimchi, but when all is said and done, it ends up with the highest concentration of lactic acid bacteria, most notably Lactobacillus, Weissella, which acts as both a pre- and probiotic, and Leuconostoc, which may help fight off seasonal illnesses like the flu.
Just in case you needed an excuse to eat more cheese, here it is: some cheeses are actually a great source of probiotics, specifically lactic acid bacteria probiotics like Lactobacillus lactis, Lactobacillus helveticus, and Streptococcus thermophilus. One study even found that mature Cheddar cheese can deliver probiotics to your gut as effectively as yogurt.
Of course, like most of the other options on this list, not all cheeses are created equally. When choosing a cheese, look for the words “raw,” “unpasteurized,” or “made with raw milk.”