13 natural probiotic foods to support your gut health

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Add these probiotic foods to your weekly shopping list to reap the health benefits.

By Annie Hayes

Are you eating enough probiotic foods? If you’re new to the world of probiotics, these beneficial bacteria have been shown to offer incredible health benefits. Promoting weight loss, reducing the severity and duration of colds, improving sleep, and combating stress-induced intestinal flare-ups are just a handful of evidence-based positives of probiotic foods.

‘Probiotic foods have the ability to improve our gut health now and potentially prevent disease in the future,’ says Jane Clarke, dietician and founder of Nourish. ‘Hugely exciting research suggests that by helping to balance and increase the “friendly” bacteria in our gut, probiotic foods can increase the diversity of our microbiome – the bacteria and other microbes that live in our body and outnumber our own cells 10 to one.’

A balanced microbiome is crucial to your health. It helps to digest food, protects against disease-causing bacteria, produces essential vitamins and regulates your immune system, Clarke says. ‘Imbalances in the microbiome have been linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, obesity and depression,’ she says. ‘So, a side of sauerkraut with roast lamb, a spoon of kimchi with avocado on sourdough toast, or a small glass of kefir a few days a week can be a great addition to your diet.’

While the food production process tends to destroy bacteria by design – both the good and the bad – there are ways to prepare certain ingredients so they retain their live and active probiotics, from factory to fridge and beyond. Below, we’ve honed in on the benefits of 13 natural probiotic foods that are tasty, easy to prepare, and super versatile.

1Yogurt

Yogurt is made by heating milk and fermenting it with two gut-friendly live cultures: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Not all yogurt contains these potent probiotics, though – certain processing methods kill them off – so choose brands labelled with active or live cultures, or make it yourself. Homemade yogurt is the best source of probiotics, an Australian study found.

2Miso

Miso means ‘fermented beans’ in Japanese. This pungent, rich seasoning is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and kōji – also known as Aspergillus oryzae. It’s loaded with minerals, particularly manganese, copper, and zinc, plus plenty of protein and fibre.

3Sauerkraut

Made by fermenting finely cut raw cabbage with lactic acid bacteria (a process known as lacto-fermentation), sauerkraut is exceptionally nutritious. In a study by the US Department of Agriculture, a single serving of sauerkraut contained up to 28 distinct beneficial bacterial strains.

4Kefir

Kefir is a fermented drink made by adding kefir grains to cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or coconut water. This probiotic-rich liquid may help to lower blood pressure by promoting communication between the gut and brain, researchers from Auburn University found.

5Kombucha

Kombucha is a fizzy, sweet-and-sour drink made by fermenting black or green tea with a specific culture known as a ‘scoby’ – symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts. Drinking kombucha every day may extend your lifespan, according to rodent research from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

6Pickles

Pickles – also called gherkins – are cucumbers that have been fermented in saltwater brine. They contain probiotics due to naturally-present lactic acid bacteria from the fermentation process. FYI: Not all pickles are fermented: those made with vinegar do not contain beneficial strains of bacteria.

7Kimchi

Like sauerkraut and pickles, kimchi is made by lacto-fermentation, and contains the lactic acid bacteria Lactobacillus kimchii. It’s usually made from cabbage (though other vegetables, like radishes and carrots, often feature) combined with salt, chilli flakes, ginger, garlic, spring onions and fish sauce.

8Buttermilk

Old school buttermilk is made from the liquid leftovers of churned butter, but these days it’s intentionally cultured – by adding lactic acid bacteria to pasteurised low-fat milk – so in shops you’ll often find it labelled ‘cultured buttermilk’. Often used for baking, this fermented drink is tart and buttery-tasting, hence the name.

9Natto

Sticky, slimy and nutty, natto is a traditional Japanese dish made from soybeans that have been fermented with Bacillus subtilis. This powerful probiotic strain reduces and prevents inflammatory responses in the intestine while strengthening the gut barrier, research published in the journal Frontiers concluded.

10Brine-cured olives

Rich in Lactobacillus, olives are often-overlooked when it comes to probiotic foods. Unfortunately, not all olives provide probiotic benefits, so be sure to look for brined-cured on the packet. Eating green Sicilian olives for 30 days can reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, Italian researchers found.

11Kvass

Kvass is a non-alcoholic fermented grain drink made from bread – usually rye – although some recipes use root vegetables like beets and carrots, or flavour it with herbs and fruits. Along with a bumper helping of probiotics from the lacto-fermentation process, kvass is loaded with nutrients, including vitamin B12 and manganese.

12Cheese

Most cheeses are fermented, but not all of them contain probiotics, so stick with raw and unpasteurised types. Swiss, provolone, gouda, edam, gruyère, mozzarella, cheddar, and cottage cheese retain their bacterial benefits.

13Tempeh

Tempeh is made by fermenting cooked soybeans with a mould called Rhizopus Oryzae and then forming the mixture into a firm, dense block. Eating fermented soy products like tempeh is associated with a lower risk of death, a large observational study published in the BMJ concluded.

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