You may have heard of the gut microbiome, where all kinds of microscopic bacteria keep you healthy in a lot of ways. Probiotics add beneficial bacteria to your gut. They’re found naturally in some foods and also available in supplement form.
But which foods are the best sources of these friendly gut critters? We investigated some of the top probiotic foods and whether supplements can also be helpful.
Yogurt is chock-full of beneficial nutrients like protein, calcium, vitamins, and — best of all — probiotics. Specifically, probiotics are found in the kind of yogurt that says it’s made with live or active cultures. Look for that on the label.
Yogurt is made from milk fermented by good bacteria like lactic acid and bifidobacteria. Some of the lactose in yogurt becomes lactic acid, which is also what makes yogurt friendlier for folks with lactose intolerance.
Try to avoid yogurts that have added sugar, since research suggests all that extra sugar may mess with your gut bacteria.
FYI, though: The way yogurt is stored, both before it gets to you and at home, can impact the viability of the probiotics. While you can’t control what happens before it hits your store, make sure to keep it refrigerated at home.
This cultured milk product naturally contains live active cultures, aka probiotics. It’s also high in protein (about 9 grams per cup), calcium, and vitamin D.
A 2019 review of studies found that the diverse bacteria strains in kefir are associated with potential reduced risk of allergies, diabetes, and cancer as well as reductions in cholesterol levels.
More research needs to be done, but the future looks bright for kefir. Add it to a yogurt smoothie for a double probiotic boost.
As with yogurt, storage of kefir can affect the probiotics’ viability. Some research suggests that freezing kefir products may help avoid this problem. Kefir ice pops, perhaps?
There’s just something good about adding tart sauerkraut to your sandwich or hot dog. Fermented foods like sauerkraut are rich in probiotics. The fermentation process for these foods adds to their antioxidant activity, antidiabetic properties, and other benefits.
The only downside to relying on sauerkraut for probiotics is that you probably don’t eat it on the regular. If it’s an occasional addition to a meal, you’re probably not eating it often enough to reap the benefits.
But if you’re thinking “Yes, I love kraut and need to eat it more,” try adding it to sandwiches, salads, or grilled proteins. Your gut will thank you.
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and is tastier than it sounds. It’s also a high protein meat substitute that has become a staple in a lot of vegetarian and vegan diets.
Fermentation comes into play yet again to add beneficial probiotics and produce vitamin B12. It can be hard to include enough B12 in your diet if you don’t eat meat, and tempeh is a great B12 source for those eating vegan.
Check out some nom-worthy tempeh recipes here, such as red curry tempeh summer rolls, baked Buffalo tempeh tenders, and sesame ginger tempeh lettuce cups.
Kimchi is a popular Korean side dish that has gained popularity all over the world. It’s usually made from spicy fermented cabbage but can also be made from other types of veggies.
Kimchi is fermented by lactic acid bacteria that studies have shown can be beneficial for your gut. It’s also a source of potassium and iron.
Bonus: You can make kimchi at home. Here are some kimchi recipes to get you started.
Although many kombucha lovers will try to convince you this fermented tea is a miracle drink (and hey, we’re big fans too), its probiotic makeup is similar to those of other bacterial beverages, such as drinking vinegars and probiotic waters. They aren’t bad sources, but they aren’t the best ones.
To get the most probiotic bang for your buck, look for “raw” kombucha, which is unpasteurized. Pasteurization can kill all those good bacteria strains.
There hasn’t yet been much research on kombucha’s effects in humans. But test-tube research suggests some potential health benefits.
For now, it doesn’t hurt to give kombucha (or “booch,” as it’s sometimes known) a try.
Even if you’re not eating many fermented foods, you don’t have to supplement your diet with over-the-counter probiotics. But probiotic supplements are gaining popularity.
Since each person’s microbiome is different, there’s no one probiotic supplement that works best for everyone. But when it comes to the amount and variety of probiotics, the answer is simple: The more strains and cultures, the better.
Because the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements in the same way as medications, there’s no standard for the formulation of probiotic supplements. That means each brand has a unique formula with various strains and a different number of cultures. This leads to an endless and potentially overwhelming variety of choices for consumers.
So what should you do?
- Familiarize yourself with different probiotic strains and their benefits. Multistrain versions appear to be more beneficial for your health than single-strain versions, though that varies from person to person. For example, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG can be effective in treating diarrhea, and Lactobacillus acidophilus has been shown to help with mood regulation, among other benefits.
- The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) also recommends sticking with well-known brands that have been around a long time, because they have a better reputation and have been tested more thoroughly.
- Some brands the AGA recommends are BioGaia, Culturelle, Dannon, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, and VSL Pharmaceuticals.
- If possible, look for products that mention colony-forming units (CFUs). This term refers to the number of live and active microorganisms in each serving. Be aware that some CFUs may be lost during manufacturing, depending on the company’s manufacturing process and storage.
- Always check with a medical professional before starting to take a probiotic supplement, since probiotics can interact with other medications.
There’s still so much we don’t know about probiotics, but a lot of research points to the benefits of consuming them to contribute to a healthy microbiome. And a healthy microbiome has been linked to a healthier immune system and improved gastrointestinal health.
Choosing foods that are fermented or cultured with beneficial bacteria may be helpful for your overall health. You can help feed your microbiome of bacteria with a nutrient-dense diet that includes lots of fiber, fruits, and veggies. Talk with a doctor or dietitian to see if adding these foods to your eating plan will be beneficial for you.