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.
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.