Probiotics are an essential part of a healthy diet. Learn about the benefits of probiotics and which foods contains the most natural probiotics.

pickles in jars with cutting board

Note: this post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for recommendations related to your individual situation.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are small, living microorganisms that help your gut flora remain healthy. Our guts are populated with bacteria, both good and bad. Probiotics are the good bacteria that keep the bad bacteria in check, ensuring your gut health remains intact.

Additionally, good bacteria line and help seal the gut to keep your gut lining strong and selectively permeable. A balanced gut microbiome with plenty of probiotic bacteria keeps your digestive system healthy, your skin clear, and your immune system strong.

What are natural probiotics?

Natural probiotics are those probiotics that occur in food and in the dirt. We’re actually evolved to ingest soil-based organisms as our source of probiotics; such as trace amounts of organic dirt on your vegetables or incidental ingestion from working or being outside near grass and soil.

These naturally occurring probiotics populate our gut and keep us healthy. After all, our ancestors long ago didn’t have access to probiotic supplements; they got everything they needed from their natural environment and foods. 

The good news is that we have access now to both: probiotic supplements and natural probiotics from foods. But, as mentioned, certain foods have naturally occurring probiotics that can help you diversify your diet and keep your gut health strong!

Fermenting veggies: pickles

10 Foods with Natural Probiotics

You’ll find natural probiotics in fermented, or traditionally prepared foods. The process of fermentation is what populates these foods with probiotic bacteria. Fermentation has been around for millennia as a way to naturally preserve food.

During the fermentation process, the carbohydrates in the food begin to break down and interact with bacteria. The result is a tangy, often sour food that doesn’t expire easily. It’s also now filled with probiotics, which help the food’s nutrient bioavailability.

1. Sauerkraut

One of the world’s oldest fermented foods, this fermented cabbage has origins in Asia. Sauerkraut is especially high in lactic acid, a source of probiotics. It’s also high in Vitamins K, A, B, and C. Sauerkraut is tangy and somewhat crunchy and is best enjoyed as a condiment or a side dish.

2. Kefir

Kefir is a drinkable source of probiotics, made from fermented milk or water. Kefir is often made with cow’s or goat’s milk, but can also be made from dairy-free milk such as coconut milk, or even water. Kefir is the only source of a beneficial probiotic strain known as Lactobacillus Kefiri. It’s also high in B vitamins and is more probiotic- and nutrient-dense than its cousin, yogurt.

3. Kimchi

Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made from cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and radishes, combined with spices such as red pepper and ginger. The result is a spicy, tangy dish resembling spicy sauerkraut filled with lactic acid-based probiotics. The fermentation also makes the B- and C vitamins in the food more bioavailable.

Kimchi Bowl with rice and chopsticks

4. Miso

Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans used to flavor Japanese dishes like soups and salads. It has a salty, umami flavor and boasts an impressive nutrient profile. Miso is rich in Vitamin K and other hard-to-get micronutrients like manganese, copper, and zinc. Fermented soy foods have also found to have less negative effects than unfermented soy products.

5. Yogurt

The most popular source of naturally-occurring probiotics, yogurt is a fermented milk product that has been around for a very long time. Like kefir, yogurt is usually made from cow’s milk, though it can also be made from goat’s, sheep’s, or non-dairy milk.

The fermentation process can make milk product more easily digestible for those with lactose sensitivity because the bacteria breaks down the milk sugar. Yogurt is naturally tangy and quite sour, but can be sweetened or made more savory depending on preference. Dairy-based yogurt is especially high in vitamins D and K, along with potassium and calcium.

Yogurt in glass bowl on table

6. Tempeh

Tempeh is another soy-based probiotic food. Made from fermented soybeans that are formed into a block or patty, tempeh is commonly used as a meat replacement in vegetarian or vegan cuisine.

Rhizopus oligosporus and Lactobacillus plantarum are the probiotic strains in tempeh that greatly increase the digestibility and bioavailability of the soybeans. This fermented food has a strong earthy, nutty flavor and offers a plant-based source of protein, B vitamins, and Vitamin K. Again, fermented soy products like miso and tempeh and safer ways to eat soy.

7. Kombucha

Kombucha is a trendy beverage that is made from black tea and sugar, and fermented from colonies of bacteria that originate from a SCOBY. Kombucha has a vinegar or beer-like taste and a mild alcohol content (usually below 0.5% ABV.)

Partially due to its natural carbonation, kombucha is a popular alcohol or soda replacement and simply a fun, healthy drink that may offer a variety of health benefits. There isn’t as much evidence to completely claim kombucha as a health food, but it does contain polyphenols from the tea and some amount of B vitamins and Vitamin C, along with natural sources of probiotics.

Two glass jars of Kombucha brewing with SCOBY

8. Fermented Veggies

Cabbage isn’t the only veggie you can ferment! You can easily ferment nearly any vegetable as a way to get more natural probiotics into your diet and preserve food. Nearly everything from carrots, to garlic, to cucumbers (A.K.A, pickles!) are fermentable. The fermentation process populates the vegetables with beneficial probiotics and renders the micronutrients more bioavailable.

9. Raw Cheese

Unpasteurized cheese, also known as raw cheese, is a nutrient-dense source of probiotics. Because the bacteria, yeast, and naturally-occurring mold aren’t killed by pasteurization, good bacteria is allowed to flourish.

10. Natto

Another soybean-based fermented food, natto is a popular condiment and breakfast dish in Japan. Natto contains Bacillus subtilis and is either loved or hated. It has a very distinct flavor, smell, and texture.

Made from soaked and fermented whole soybeans, natto has a stringy, somewhat slimy texture. Like other fermented soy products, natto is high in Vitamin K, B vitamins, and calcium. It also contains nattokinase as an active ingredient, which has been linked to the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.

BONUS: Sourdough

This traditionally-prepared bread is popular for its tangy taste. Sourdough bread is made from a probiotic culture and wheat (though some grain-free and gluten-free options are becoming more widely available.) While sourdough isn’t a great source of probiotics, as the heat kills the bacteria, the fermentation process can make the gluten more easily digestible.

FAQs

Does apple cider vinegar have probiotics?

Yes! Apple cider vinegar contains natural probiotics due to its fermentation process. This fermented vinegar is especially high in Lactobacillus, Oenococcus, Acetobacter, Komagataeibacter, and Gluconobacter acetic acids. Keep in mind that apple cider vinegar is a potent product that should always be consumed diluted. Thus, it shouldn’t be relied upon as your only source of probiotics. You would have to drink a lot of apple cider vinegar to reap its benefits as a probiotic food source.

Do bananas have probiotics?

No, bananas don’t contain probiotics. They do contain prebiotics in small amounts, particularly green, unripe bananas. Prebiotics are indigestible carbohydrates present in some foods; this prebiotic fiber is food for probiotics in your gut. Probiotics and prebiotics work synergistically to keep your gut well-populated and healthy.

fermented veggies in jars

Conclusion

There are lots of natural and fermented foods that can help introduce healthy bacteria into your system. For the best results, try to get a wide variety of plant foods into your diet that will contain both prebiotics and probiotics. It’s also a good idea for most people to take a probiotic supplement (although you should check with your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet or supplement routine).

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