Probiotics are an essential part of a healthy diet. Learn about the benefits of probiotics and which foods contains the most natural probiotics.
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. I try to get a healthy dose of both. See which spore-based probiotic supplement I recommend. But, as mentioned, certain foods have naturally occurring probiotics that can help you diversify your diet and keep your gut health strong! The goal would be to eat at least one food containing natural probiotics a day.
10 Foods with Natural Probiotics (Try to Eat At Least 1 Daily)
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.
10 common fermented and natural foods that are probiotic powerhouses
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. See my fermented cranberry chutney recipe.
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. Raw, grass-fed cheese from sheep or goats is the best bet for lactose-sensitive individuals who want this Vitamin D, K, and calcium-rich probiotic food in their diets.
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. If you are going to eat a soy product, natty is likely the most healthful.
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. If you eat bread containing gluten, sourdough may be your best choice!
FAQs About Natural Probiotics
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.
Do I need to take a probiotic?
A probiotic supplement is generally a good idea (see my lists of the best supplements for women over 20 and the best supplements for women over 50). A supplement contains more diverse strains of probiotics and can be especially beneficial for those with damaged guts who need to repopulate good bacteria.
But, some research has found that probiotic food contains more beneficial bacteria than a supplement. For healthy individuals with no digestive or immune system issues, frequent consumption of probiotic foods may suffice.
My personal feeling is that most people need probiotics since we live in a highly sanitized environment. Additionally, a lot of us who have chronic health issues would benefit from a healthier gut.
If you are looking for a probiotic supplement to take, I highly recommend this spore-based probiotic.
Will probiotics help me lose weight?
Probiotics can help overweight or obese individuals lose weight, but it is not a quick weight-loss remedy. Probiotics can help heal an imbalanced gut microbiome, helping everything from metabolism, appetite, and taste preferences. A healthy microbiome can also reduce inflammation, which may account for a significant portion of weight in some.
Conclusion About Natural Probiotics
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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