6 Probiotic Foods to Add to Your Diet

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on April 11, 2017Written by Elizabeth Connor on April 11, 2017

What are probiotic foods?

Probiotic foods contain living bacteria. These bacteria are like the bacteria that exist in your body. They’re able to survive the trip through your digestive tract. Probiotics are “good” bacteria that may provide health benefits.

Your digestive tract contains many different types of bacteria. Research suggests that you will have fewer health problems if you have a balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in your digestive tract.

Fermentation introduces probiotics into food. Fermentation uses microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast to break down food into a simpler substance. Probiotics in food have to survive the acidic environment of the digestive tract in order to have any benefit.

Many foods and supplements tout the presence of probiotics. Comparing brands of supplements and foods can offer information about their relative effectiveness. The higher the number of microorganisms they contain, the more benefit they offer to your body.

Six probiotic foods

If your doctor has recommended probiotics, the food at the top of the list likely is yogurt. Yogurt contains good bacteria. However, it is just one of numerous foods that can supply probiotics. There are several other options:

1. Kefir

Probiotic foods

Kefir is a fermented drink like yogurt. It has a concentration of probiotics that is higher than yogurt. It is made with fermented animal milk and kefir grain.

2. Sauerkraut and kimchi

Probiotic foods

Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage. Kimchi is also made with fermented vegetables, but there are many different recipes. Kimchi can be made with mustard leaf, broccoli, and olives.

3. Soy

Probiotic foods

Soy fermented with Lactobacillus is used widely to create many different foods that are popular in Asian cultures.

Just a few examples of fermented soy include:

  • soy sauce
  • miso
  • tempeh

Researchers are investigating whether the probiotic properties of soy can reduce the incidence of breast cancer and other diseases.

4. Kombucha

Probiotic foods

Kombucha is green or black tea that is fermented with sugar and yeast. The fermentation creates solids that inspire some to call it “mushroom tea.” But the drink has no mushroom extracts at all.

The healing effects of kombucha are widely advertised and promoted. There is no consensus on whether kombucha provides any particular probiotic health benefits, though some brands do advertise the probiotic content.

5. Sourdough bread

Probiotic foods

Sourdough bread is made by fermenting flour and water, and then adding it to dough. The fermentation process makes it easier to digest than other types of bread. Research has shown that sourdough bread may provide health benefits to people with type 2 diabetes and other conditions.

6. Pickles

Probiotic foods

Commercially produced pickles get their flavor from vinegar. But cucumbers (and other vegetables) fermented in brine without vinegar can get their kick — and probiotic boost — from the cultures present. Some brands make pickles without vinegar, including Real Pickles and The Brinery. But there are many different recipes that can show you how to make your own probiotic pickles.

What are the benefits of probiotics?

There’s a lot that we don’t know about probiotic foods, but experts report they can boost health in several ways. They can:

  • regulate the organisms in the digestive system
  • reduce cholesterol
  • reduce symptoms in people who cannot digest milk
  • lower the risk of colon cancer
  • increase the effectiveness of vitamins
  • lower the risk of allergies in some people
  • boost the immune system
  • help the body use calcium

Foods can contain different probiotic microorganisms. The most common are bacteria that belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Each group contains several different kinds of bacteria. Other bacteria and some yeasts also are considered probiotics.

Each type of bacterial strain can have different effects. A single strain might have a different effect on healthy people than it does on those with compromised immune systems.

Organizations in the United States and abroad have guidelines on what probiotic labeling should look like. But right now, the law on what gets to be labeled “probiotic” is still being developed.

What are prebiotics and postbiotics?

Recently, nutrition experts have started to recommend that people eat a class of foods known as “prebiotics” to get more benefit from probiotics. Prebiotics don’t contain microorganisms. Instead they create a good environment and provide fuel for probiotics.

Many vegetables are excellent sources of prebiotic compounds. Such vegetables include asparagus, garlic, leek, onion, and artichoke. Though information is limited on the cooking effects of prebiotic-rich foods, low-heat cooking or steaming are likely the best cooking methods for retaining prebiotics. Other traditional dietary sources of prebiotics include soybeans, raw oats, unrefined wheat, and unrefined barley.

Researchers have been looking more closely at the impact of postbiotics. These are the byproducts of probiotic activity. At one time it was thought that postbiotics were merely waste products. They are increasingly considered important in maintaining good digestive health. In farm animals, for example, isolated postbiotics teamed up with prebiotics are able to attack harmful bacteria. It’s hoped that postbiotics can reduce the need for antibiotics in both humans and animals.

The takeaway

Live cultures in food have been part of the human diet for centuries. In recent years, scientists have isolated the live cultures and dubbed them “probiotics.” They are widely studied for their preventive and curative health benefits. Fermentation of dairy products, vegetables, and beans produce especially high levels of probiotics.

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