Probiotics are living microorganisms that deliver a range of health benefits when included in the diet. (1) Traditional fermented food sources of these bacteria exist in nearly every culture, and can also be taken in supplement form.
This list of healthy fermented foods containing beneficial probiotics can help you round out your health plan and get the most out of your menu.
1. Kefir and Traditional Buttermilk
These fermented milk products may be well-tolerated even by those who are lactose intolerant because friendly bacteria have already begun to digest the milk sugar (lactose) that causes problems for some people.
The name “kefir” is derived from the Turkish word “keyif,” referring to feeling good after eating it.
Kefir grains added to goat or cow’s milk are cultures consisting of yeast and lactic acid bacteria; the potent bacterial action of the several strains contained in kefir have been valued as a healthy food for centuries. (6)
Buttermilk can refer to any one of several fermented dairy products, but the only kind containing live cultures is the traditional type, which is the liquid remaining after butter is made.
Commonly used in Pakistan, India and Nepal, traditional buttermilk is skinny on calories and rich in several important nutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin and vitamin B12. (9)
Keep in mind that cultured buttermilk found on supermarket shelves does not contain live probiotics.
Perhaps the best-known probiotic food in Western cultures, yogurt is made from milk fermented with several bacterial cultures, including bifidobacteria and lactic acid bacteria. (10)
Like kefir, yogurt is better than milk for people who are lactose intolerant since the fermenting process has already begun.
Studies indicate that children eating yogurt after taking a course of antibiotics have fewer problems with diarrhea, and patients with irritable bowel syndrome often experience improvements when they include yogurt in their diets. (13, 14)
This highly nutritious food should be chosen with care, since many yogurt products available don’t contain live cultures. Look for products labeled with the words “live” or “active.”
3. Some Cheeses
While cheese is a fermented product, only certain types contain live probiotics. Bacterial cultures don’t always survive aging processes, so read labels carefully.
Fermented cabbage is made using the same lactic acid bacteria found in the dairy products mentioned above. It’s been around forever, and is popular in Europe and other parts of the world.
Often served with sausage, sauerkraut is both salty and sour, and will keep well for months in an airtight container.
Sauerkraut is an excellent source of fiber, as well as providing vitamins B, C and K; minerals you’ll get from sauerkraut include iron and manganese, and the antioxidants in this fermented food support eye health. (20, 21)
The pasteurization process kills friendly bacteria, so read labels to make certain you choose an unpasteurized product.
This fermented soybean product is a Japanese kitchen staple, usually served with rice at breakfast. The bacterial strain it contains is called Bacillus subtilis.
A high-protein food, the texture of natto is slimy and the flavor is strong. It also packs a distinct aroma, but studies show older Japanese men who consumed natto regularly were more likely to have dense, healthy bones, perhaps because of its high vitamin K2 content. (22)
Also made from fermented soybeans, tempeh originates in Indonesia and has become popular worldwide as a high-protein substitute for meat.
The flavor has been described as earthy and nutty, and it’s made in the form of a patty that holds together well and can be fried in slices, cubed, or crumbled.
While soybeans are known for their high phytic acid content, the fermentation process significantly decreases the amount of this substance that can inhibit mineral absorption. (25)
Another fermentation bonus is the vitamin B12 produced by bacteria, which isn’t available in soybeans; this can help vegetarians get an important nutrient present mostly in animal foods. (26)
Considered a seasoning, this soybean product is cultured with salt and koji fungus, and is traditionally used to flavor Japanese dishes.
Another version of miso can be made by combining soybeans with grains like rye, barley or rice. Miso soup is a popular breakfast food in Japan, and the salty seasoning comes in various colors, each with a slightly different taste.
Rich in protein and fiber, miso delivers a range of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. (27) Japanese women who eat generous quantities of miso have a lower risk of breast cancer and stroke. (28, 29)
A spicy side dish originating in Korea, kimchi is usually made with cabbage, but other vegetables can also be used.
Fermented with its own strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus kimchii along with lactic acid bacteria, this popular food is seasoned with garlic, scallions, chili flakes, ginger and salt, and is believed to improve digestive health. (30, 31)
This fermented drink is made with either green or black tea, and is popular worldwide, especially in Asian countries.
Made with bacteria and yeast, kombucha has a reputation for imparting a range of health benefits, but studies have been done only in the lab, so clear evidence to back up the claims aren’t available yet. (32)
Since it’s a fermented drink, it’s reasonable to believe it may have benefits similar to other foods we’ve covered here, and the probiotic content could make valuable contributions to overall health.
10. Chicory Root
Chicory root comes from the chicory plant. Its roots are often dried and used as a supplement to help with a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart failure, loss of appetite, upset stomach, constipation, and liver disorders. In some cases, it is applied directly to the skin for swelling and inflammation.
Its effectiveness on these disorders has not been appropriately studied, though, so it often falls into the realm of herbal supplements.
Besides being used as a supplement, this plant is often eaten directly like celery, though it can also be boiled and eaten. Some also use it as a spice. It has a flavor similar to coffee and is sometimes mixed into coffee to enrich the coffee’s flavor.
It may also increase bile production, which can help improve fat digestion. If you’re sensitive to fat, like a greasy burger, this can be particularly helpful (35).
11. Dandelion Greens
Dandelions are extremely common and cheap. You can use them in salads or in any occasion that uses lettuce or spinach.
Dandelions are also a great source of inulin fiber. Each 100-gram serving contains 4 grams of fiber – most of which is inulin. This fiber can increase the friendly bacteria in your gut, boosting your immune system and reducing stomach complaints (36).
Furthermore, dandelion greens also have a variety of other health benefits. They are considered to be antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Furthermore, they are also diuretic and can lower cholesterol (37, 38, 39, 40).
Garlic has been linked to all kinds of health benefits. Garlic extract can reduce the risk of heart diseases and has been shown to have antioxidant and antimicrobial effects. It even has benefits against cancer and asthma (41, 42, 43).
Plus, 11% of garlic’s fiber content comes from inulin, which is an important prebiotic and probiotic. Garlic also contains another natural prebiotic called fructooligosaccharides. This prebiotic is what gives garlic the sweet flavor after being roasted.
Garlic is a great probiotic because it promotes the growth of Bifidobacteria, which is a good bacteria that lives in our gut. Because it encourages this bacteria to grow, it also reduces the growth of disease-linked bacteria (44).
Onions are very similar to garlic. About 10% of an onion’s fiber content is inulin, which is the same prebiotic and probiotic that garlic contains.
Fructooligosaccharides are also in onions and make up about 6% of the fiber content. This probiotic has been shown to strengthen the good bacteria in your gut and help with fat breakdown. It can also boost your immune system by increasing the amount of nitric oxide your cells produce (45, 46, 47).
Onions also have the same anti-cancer properties that garlic does and are rich in antioxidants.
14. Jerusalem Artichoke
Jerusalem artichokes are well-known for their health benefits. They contain about 2 grams of fiber per 100 gram serving, and 76% of this fiber is inulin (48). They have been shown to be extremely friendly to the bacteria found in your colon, making them an excellent choice to use alongside garlic and onions, which are friendly to your gut bacteria.
Asparagus is another vegetable that is chocked full of gut-friendly health benefits. It contains prebiotics and about 2-3 grams of inulin per 100-gram serving.
Asparagus has been shown to promote friendly bacteria in your gut and has even been linked to the prevention of cancer (51). Furthermore, it may also have anti-inflammatory benefits due to the fiber and antioxidants. However, this effect has not been deeply studied yet (52).
Bananas are cheap and popular. They also contain a very small amount of inulin, which is important for the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut. Unripe bananas also contain resistant starch, which is another useful prebiotic.
Studies have shown that the probiotic and prebiotic contents of bananas can improve gut bacteria and reduce bloating (53).
Pickles are fermented cucumbers that have been pickled in a mixture of salt and water. While cucumbers usually do not contain any probiotics, they do after being fermented and pickled.
While they are fermenting, they will produce latic acid bacteria. This bacteria has a positive effect on digestive health and can improve a variety of ailments. Plus, pickles can be eaten with a wide variety of foods, so it is not terribly difficult to fit them into your diet.
They are low in calories, which is helpful if you’re trying to lose weight. Plus, they ar every high in certain vitamins as well, including vitamin K.
Not all pickles contain probiotics, though. Pickles made with vinegar do not contain any probiotics. Instead, you’ll have to look for pickles that have been made naturally.
The saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” might be correct. Pectin accounts for approximately 50% of an apple’s total fiber content. While this is technically a probiotic, it also improves your gut bacteria, making it a solid choice to eat alongside other foods on this list.
Pectin has natural prebiotic benefits, which help your gut bacteria flourish and improve the chances of other probiotics working. It increases the amount of butyrate in your stomach, which is a short-chain fatty acid that many types of good bacteria eat. This increases the number of good bacteria in your stomach and decreases the number of harmful bacteria (54).
Plus, apples are also high in antioxidants. When combined with probiotics and Pectin, these antioxidants have been shown to improve digestive health and the metabolism of fat that you eat. They may also decrease your cholesterol and risk for certain cancers (55, 56, 57).
19. Elephant Yam
Elephant yam is a vegetable similar to a potatoes. It is eaten like any other vegetable and also commonly used as a dietary supplement because of its wide variety of health benefits. There are a wide variety of traditional foods that are made with this plant, providing plenty of ways for you to fit it into your usual diet.
About 40% of an elephant yam’s contents is glucomannan fiber. This dietary fiber promotes the growth of friendly bacteria in your colon and can even boost your immune system in certain circumstances (58, 59).
Furthermore, glucomannan is a common ingredient in weight loss supplements because of its ability to swell substantially in your stomach, which makes you feel fuller than you would otherwise. It also improves your carbohydrate metabolism, making it particularly useful for those who eat high-carb diets.
Overall, elephant yams have so many benefits that there really isn’t a reason you shouldn’t be eating them.
Flaxseeds can be eaten like any other food, but they are most commonly used as a supplement. They are very nutrition-dense and a good source of prebiotics, which can be paired with other probiotic foods on this list for increased effectiveness.
They contain quite a lot of fiber. This fiber is both soluble and insoluble, making flaxseeds about as complete of a fiber as they come. All this fiber promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut and improves your dietary fat absorption.
Flaxseeds also have a whole host of other health benefits, such as regulating blood sugar.
There are many other types of fermented foods besides the ones on this list, and if you aren’t already enjoying this beneficial class of foods, you may want to experiment and see which ones might tickle your taste buds.
Summary: Probiotic microorganisms found in fermented foods like these may improve digestive health, sharpen mental processes, protect the cardiovascular system, and help promote good bone density while providing a wide range of vital nutrients.