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Probiotic Foods to Add to Your Diet

Written by Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD

Reviewed by Anthony Dugarte, MD 

Last Updated on May 14, 2021

Probiotics don’t just come in capsules or powders. There are plenty of probiotic foods you can incorporate into your diet for gut health benefits. Understanding what foods have probiotics can help you plan for meals and snacks that include them regularly.

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Probiotic Foods to Add to Your Diet

Why Eat Probiotic-Rich Foods?

Probiotics are live microorganisms that help populate the good bacteria in your digestive tract. This is called your gut microbiome.

Because so much of our overall health depends on the health of our gut, it’s important to practice habits that support an optimal balance of good, health-promoting bacteria.

Additionally, probiotics may have specific benefits for your mental health, skin, digestion, and heart. Research also suggests that probiotics have benefits for your immune system.

While there are plenty of probiotic supplements to choose from, these aren’t the only ways to help boost the good bacteria of your gut.

Eating foods that are naturally rich in probiotics is an easy way to introduce healthy bacteria regularly.

Probiotic-rich foods are generally easy to find in most supermarkets and are typically in the refrigerated section.

To be considered a true probiotic food, the Food and Agricultural Organization and World Health Organization require that the microorganism strains being used meet the following 4 criteria

  • They are sufficiently characterized
  • They are safe for the intended use
  • They are supported by at least one positive and scientifically robust human clinical trial 
  • They are alive in the product at an efficacious dose throughout shelf life

You can choose from a variety of types as you decide which foods would fit best into your lifestyle and meet your needs.

Foods with Probiotics in Them

Foods that contain probiotics have been fermented. This means that they have undergone fermentation, a process of naturally preserving food that uses microorganisms like bacteria and yeast to convert carbohydrates into alcohol or acids.

Fermented foods tend to have a similar tartness to their flavor from the acids. It’s this process of fermentation that gives these foods their probiotics.

Some of the best food sources of probiotics include:

1. Kefir

This is a fermented probiotic milk beverage that resembles drinkable yogurt.

It’s made by adding kefir grains to dairy milk and, as a result, contains several potent strains of gut-friendly bacteria.

2. Kombucha

A fermented tea beverage, kombucha is most often made with a green or black tea base. Kombucha is carbonated and often has a fruity flavor.

It is made by adding a SCOBY, or symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast to tea. Bits of SCOBY are often found at the bottom of commercial kombucha bottles.

3. Natto

Another traditional Japanese soy food, natto is a sticky, slimy, and strong-smelling soybean food.

4. Miso

Miso is a salty paste most often used as a soup seasoning in Japanese culture. It’s made by fermenting whole soybeans with salt and a fungus called koji.

5. Tempeh

Made with fermented soybeans, tempeh is a firm tan-colored patty with an earthy flavor that has many versatile culinary uses.

6. Sauerkraut

This is a shredded cabbage that has been fermented with lactic acid bacteria.

Choose sauerkraut that states it is unpasteurized, as the pasteurization process would kill off any probiotic bacteria from the product.

7. Yogurt

Made by milk that has been fermented with friendly bacteria, yogurt is one of the best sources of probiotics.

Be sure to choose varieties that state they have had live and active cultures added to them.

8. Kimchi

This is a spicy fermented food typically made with cabbage, similar to sauerkraut, but may also include a mix of other veggies.

9. Traditional Buttermilk

This type of buttermilk refers specifically to the leftover liquid from the process of making butter, which contains probiotics.

Other types of commercial buttermilk are not a good source of probiotics.

10. Pickles

Pickles are simply cucumbers that have been fermented in a solution of salt and water and left to ferment with their own sour lactic acid bacteria.

11. Some Cheeses

While most cheeses are fermented, bacteria don’t always survive the aging process, so they are not all good sources of probiotics.

Choosing ones that state they contain live and active cultures can provide existing probiotics to your diet. These often include Gouda, mozzarella, and cheddar, as well as cottage cheese.

What Probiotics Are in Foods?

The most common probiotics that you would find in fermented foods include various strains of Bifidobacteria, which are richest in dairy products like cheese, yogurt, and kefir, as well as lactic acid bacteria.

Several chronic diseases seem to have a correlation with low numbers of Bifidobacteria in the intestines, such as celiac disease, dermatitis, obesity, diabetes, and allergic asthma.

Bifidobacteria may also have benefits for mental health and inflammatory bowel conditions.

Bacillus subtilis is a specific bacterial strain found in natto that may stimulate immunity.

Several strains of Lactobacillus are found in kimchi and may have benefits for immunity, inflammation, and digestive issues like diarrhea.

Vegan Sources of Probiotics

The list above contains several different types of foods. You may be wondering whether they would be appropriate on a plant-based or vegan diet, which minimizes or excludes animal-derived foods like meat, eggs, and dairy products like milk and cheese.

The answer is that there are plenty of vegan probiotic foods. From the list above, safe vegan choices include kombucha, natto, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles.

Plus, the fermentation process itself doesn’t add any animal-derived ingredients that would make these foods no longer vegan.

Of course, there are always variations of products, so it’s best to check the ingredient list to ensure no dairy milk or other animal ingredients have been added to the end product being sold.

Note that some stores may carry vegan versions of traditionally dairy-based kefir, yogurt, and cheese.

However, you should check the ingredient list to determine whether they include probiotic strains or are simply meant to be similar products.

Prebiotics in Foods

If you’re thinking about adding probiotics to your diet, prebiotics can also be worth considering.

Probiotics and prebiotics may work synergistically to help bacteria crossing the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract survive and be more effective in the colon.

Prebiotics are essentially the food for probiotics. They are a type of dietary fiber that helps your gut bacteria produce nutrients that benefit your digestive system.

Prebiotics are found in foods like:

  • Dandelion greens
  • Chicory root
  • Garlic
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Apples
  • Flax seeds

How to Eat Probiotic Foods

With the variety of foods that offer probiotics, you can enjoy them in many ways.

For instance, tempeh can be grilled and used on salad, sauteed for stir fry, or crumbled to make vegan chili or sloppy joes.

Miso can be used to make miso soup or as a flavoring for rice and other grain dishes or homemade sauces. Natto is typically added to rice.

Pickles can be layered onto sandwiches or eaten raw on the side of a meal plate.

Yogurt can be the base for a berry and granola breakfast or used in smoothies and homemade creamy dips.

Safety Considerations

Consuming fermented probiotic foods is considered safe for most healthy people.

However, if you’re not used to eating probiotic-rich food, it’s not uncommon to experience bloating and increased gas as an initial and temporary side effect, especially if the food is also high in fiber.

It’s also important to note that while foods can also be fermented at home, this comes with more safety risks.

Incorrect temperatures, using unsterile equipment or surfaces, or following the wrong fermentation times can lead to spoilage or contamination that makes the food unsafe.

Purchasing commercial fermented probiotic foods made in controlled, sterile environments can help reduce this risk. 

If you are experiencing gastrointestinal distress or unusual symptoms, it’s best to speak to your doctor to ensure any underlying causes are properly addressed before adding probiotic foods or assuming these will resolve the issue.

The Bottom Line

How do you know if you would benefit from prebiotics and probiotics? Probiotic foods can be beneficial for most healthy people as part of their regular diet.

In other words, don’t just wait until you have stomach symptoms to start eating them, as you could be missing out on preventive benefits for your everyday digestive health.

Consuming probiotic foods can be as simple as adding some of these fermented items to your existing routine.

Foods like pickles, yogurt, sauerkraut, and tempeh can be used in everyday ways.

You may also enjoy experimenting with less common foods like natto, miso, and kimchi to find new ways to use probiotics.

Whatever diet pattern you follow, there are plenty of probiotic-rich foods to choose from.

Enjoy the benefits of probiotics in ways that work best for you, and your digestive and overall health will thank you.

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