Even if you have a healthy digestive system, chances are, over the past few years, you’ve become aware of gut bacteria and how important intestinal flora is to our overall health. You may also have heard of probiotics, which can have a big influence on the human microbiome. But if you need a refresher, here’s a breakdown of what probiotics are, what probiotic food might benefit you, and how you can make these healthy fermented foods at home to reap all the benefits.
What Are Probiotics Anyway?
I have a terrible digestive system. I’ve been cursed with an inability to digest lactose and I have problems digesting wheat. Anything too fatty or spicy also does a number on me, and I can’t tolerate very much caffeine or alcohol. Although I try to avoid most of these foods on a daily basis, I’m only human—sometimes I just can’t resist a food that falls into one or more of these categories, or I’m served these foods when traveling or eating in a restaurant or in someone else’s home. Even for those who have a pretty strong digestive tract, it’s easy to overdo it. If you’ve eaten and/or drank too much over the past few weeks, foods that contain probiotics are going to be your new best friend.
Probiotics are great for helping to rebalance your digestive health. If you’re feeling bloated or having other GI issues, or having trouble digesting your food, adding probiotics to your diet can help get you back on the right track.
Probiotics are also helpful for strengthening the immune system during cold and flu season. If you’ve been sick and taken antibiotics, which can upset the stomach, probiotics can also help restore a healthy balance to the gut.
The “friendly” or “good” live bacteria in probiotics are naturally found in many foods, particularly fermented foods. Common types of probiotics include Lactobacillus (often found in yogurt and other fermented food) and Bifidobacterium (found in some dairy products). Sandor Katz, author of the book “Wild Fermentation” and an expert on fermented foods, says, “Probiotics is all about biodiversity, and different fermented foods contain different communities of organisms. So I’d say the greater diversity of fermented foods you can eat, the better.”
Related Reading: What Is the Difference Between Fermenting and Pickling?
What Food Has the Most Probiotics?
While you can take a probiotic supplement, the best way to get their good bacteria benefits for your gut microbiome are by eating probiotic foods. Here are some particularly probiotic rich foods that are easy to find or make yourself. (But don’t forget about prebiotic foods either.)
Yogurt is one of the most well-known sources of probiotics. Look for yogurt that contains lactobacillus acidophilus and doesn’t have a lot of added sugars, artificial colors, or artificial flavors, including Greek yogurt and skyr. Most people who are lactose intolerant can usually digest yogurt fairly easily, but if you’re avoiding dairy due to allergies or food preferences, you can find non-dairy yogurts made from almond, soy, coconut, or cashew that are still fermented and contain probiotics. If you recently got an Instant Pot, you could try making your own yogurt in it; you can also make homemade yogurt with a heavy saucepan.
Instant Pot 6-Quart 7-in-1 Pressure Cooker, $79 on Amazon
One more reason to give in to the pressure.
With a taste and texture similar to thinned yogurt (though notably tangier), kefir can be sipped as a drink, or used as an ingredient in dishes like this Chilled Kefir, Cucumber, and Avocado Soup recipe, this Rye Berry Salad with Kefir Dressing, or your favorite smoothie. If you want to try making kefir, you’ll need to buy some kefir grains. Most commonly, kefir is made from milk grains, but you can also purchase water kefir grains to make fermented, non-dairy drinks.
Active Organic Milk Kefir Grains, $11.99 on Amazon
Use these to make your own kefir at home.
If you haven’t already tried kombucha, it’s a slightly bubbly drink that can be an acquired taste (I find it pleasantly tart, but some people describe it as “vinegary.”). It’s possible to find a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), a.k.a. “the mother”, and brew your own kombucha but now it’s also pretty easy to find bottled, commercially produced kombucha in health food stores and healthy grocery store chains. My regular, no-frills grocery store carries kombucha (near the yogurt); I’ve even seen kombucha in my local Target. Kombucha is full of probiotics and I find that when I have an unsettled stomach, drinking kombucha really helps calm it down. Kombucha comes in a variety of flavors, but the plain version doesn’t have added sugars.
The Kombucha Shop Kombucha Brewing Kit, $44.99 on Amazon
Everything you need to get started if you want to DIY.
Kimchi is Korean in origin and is usually made from fermented cabbage (radish kimchi is another popular type of kimchi). You can make your own kimchi or buy kimchi (Mother-in-Law’s is one brand that’s pretty widely available) at your local Asian market or healthy grocery store (my regular grocery store also now carries kimchi; it’s housed near the sauerkraut). Of course, kimchi is particularly good with Asian-style dishes (including noodle or rice/grain bowls and stir-fries, like this Kimchi and Shrimp Fried Rice), tacos, eggs, and burgers. I’m also quite fond of the powerhouse Korean condiment gochujang, a fermented paste which I basically put on everything (especially eggs). Most types of kimchi and gochujang can add flavor and kick to your dishes without being blow-your-face-off spicy. While cabbage is the most widely known variety, you can make kimchi from plenty of other fermented veggies.
Related Reading: Try This White Kimchi for a Refreshing Change of Pace
Raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut is naturally probiotic. You can make your own, or look for brands (like the Superkraut brand) that contain live, active cultures and have been minimally processed. Farmer’s markets, health food stores, and gourmet grocery stores are great resources for fresh, fermented sauerkraut.
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans; unlike tofu, tempeh uses whole soybeans and has a denser texture and a stronger flavor. You can use tempeh in many recipes where you’d use tofu or even meat. Tempeh tacos, stir-fries, and sandwiches (like a tempeh reuben, which also involves sauerkraut) are some of the dishes where tempeh shines.
Pickles can be made in a variety of ways, but pickles that have been fermented (using lactic acid bacteria) contain probiotics. Look for pickles that have words like “probiotic” or “fermented” on the label, or make your own. Fermented pickled vegetables (including, but not limited to, cucumbers) will take longer than “quick” pickles, but you’ll reap the probiotic benefits.
Like tempeh, miso also comes from fermented soybeans. You’ve probably tried miso soup, but miso paste—which comes in white (mild), yellow (medium), and red (the strongest flavor)—can also be used to add robust flavor and probiotic punch to other soups (like carrot ginger), dressings, sauces, and marinades, like the one used in this Miso-Ginger Glazed Salmon. It’s even great on grilled cheese.
White Miso, $13.90 on Amazon
Try mild white miso in everything that could use a little umami boost.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.