Have you heard about probiotics? Probiotic foods are made when foods mix with certain bacteria and yeasts that cause fermentation, which is a chemical change in the food. Examples of fermentation are milk turning into yogurt or making sauerkraut from cabbage. In some cases, fermentation makes a food easier to digest – that’s why a lot of people who can’t drink milk can eat yogurt. Also, fermentation can make it easier for the body to absorb the vitamins and minerals in a food. All fermented foods contain probiotics at some point, but if the food is heated or canned after it ferments, then the good bacteria or yeast will not survive. So if you want to eat some probiotics in your food, focus on raw versions of fermented foods.
Are probiotics good for me?
Although most research suggests that probiotic foods are safe and often beneficial, many products have not been tested in the research setting. The collection of microbes in the intestinal tract makes for a diverse ecosystem. There is no evidence to suggest that one probiotic bacteria or yeast is good for everyone. Also, more is not necessarily better. That's why I recommend eating small amounts of probiotic-rich foods daily. Unless you're being treated by a knowledgeable practitioner who uses specific, researched probiotic strains to help treat a medical condition, I encourage you to eat a variety of probiotic foods containing a variety of different bacterial or yeast strains.
Is there anyone who should avoid probiotics?
For people who have bacterial imbalances in their intestines, it's not always a good idea to add extra bacteria or yeasts to the mix. Specifically, people with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or histamine intolerance might not tolerate certain fermented foods. Those with autoimmune conditions might have trouble, as well. I don't know of solid research that documents this concern, but some pretty smart dietitians in my network have noticed this in their practice. Do the foods listed below make you feel bloated, uncomfortable, or cause other symptoms? You might want to hire a dietitian such as myself to make tailor-made recommendations to help you feel better.
Here are some probiotic-rich fermented foods you can add to your diet.
This fermented cabbage side dish is easy to make. Check out a recipe by clicking here. If you try it yourself, be sure to keep the sauerkraut fully submerged in the salt water during the process - otherwise you'll get mold! The canned stuff on the store shelf has been heated, which sadly kills probiotic bacteria. If you buy it, make sure to get the kind in the refrigerated section such as the one pictured above.
• Other vegetables
Many vegetables (and some fruits!) can be fermented in a similar way to sauerkraut. You might ferment carrots or radishes. Kimchi is a Korean fermented side dish which is traditionally strongly made with Napa cabbage and daikon radishes. Chiles, garlic, ginger, and fermented fish sauce give kimchi its strong flavor. Fermented garlic in raw honey sounds really interesting, and some claim it makes a powerful, cold-fighting tonic. However, please consider this fermentation with caution: raw honey sometimes contains a small amount of botulism. Even though this small amount is usually not enough to cause disease in adults (never give honey to kids < 1 year old), I can't tell you with certainty that it's safe to ferment raw honey with garlic.
Yogurt is, for many people, the most obvious food source of probiotics. I recommend organic plain yogurt made with “live active cultures.” Add your own sweetener such as a drizzle of honey or some fruit. Sweetened yogurt usually comes with too much sugar added.
Have you seen this for sale at your local supermarket and wondered what the heck it is? Kombucha fermented sweet tea. It has a sweet and sour taste and has a little bit of a vinegar flavor. It does contain a very small amount of alcohol - most brands are only 0.5% alcohol unless more is listed on the label. Sometimes you can find it in bottles mixed with fruit juice or other things like chia seeds. If you're feeling ambitious, you can make this yourself, too!
• Acidophilus Milk
Remember this? It's milk that's been inoculated with the Lactobacillus acidophilus bacteria. Some people find that this milk is easier to digest than regular cow's milk. Before you switch from cow's milk to soy milk on your cereal, consider trying acidophilus milk first.
This is a drinkable fermented milk that tastes a lot like yogurt. It comes in different flavors.
Not sure how to incorporate fermented foods into your regular meal and snack schedule? Check out some ideas here. Let me know which probiotic-rich foods you enjoy in the comments below!
PS - What about probiotic supplements? Those can be helpful, but like probiotic foods, more is not necessarily better, and some are better researched than others. I am happy to discuss specific probiotic recommendations with my clients. Want to become a client of mine? Click here to schedule an appointment.
Lindsey Hays, RDN, LN
Lindsey Hays is licensed as a Nutritionist/Dietitian in the state of South Dakota. While she holds a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN or RD) credential which is nationally recognized by the Commission on Dietitian Registration, she is not licensed to practice as a nutritionist or dietitian in states other than South Dakota. She is a Certified Dietitian in the State of Washington. The information on blackhillsnutrition.com is not intended as medical advice. The content of this site is not intended to provide or replace medical advice, nor should it be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. Always consult a qualified healthcare professional before changing your diet or medications. For full disclaimer statement click here.