The Best Probiotic Foods for Optimal Gut Health

IN THIS ARTICLE: Nourishing your body with healthy foods and a well-balanced diet has always been vital to health and wellbeing, however, being a bit more selective with the foods you’re consuming can boost your gut health significantly. Eating fermented food and drinks can help you consume beneficial bacteria that can have some seriously great (and essential) health benefits. Let’s take a look at them now.

What are probiotics?

Those beneficial bacteria mentioned above are called probiotics. They mainly live in your small and large intestine but they can be found all over your body; on your skin, in your mouth, and even in your nose.

Eating probiotic rich foods can help you maintain a healthy amount of probiotics in your system so that they outweigh the harmful bacteria that would otherwise make you ill. 

Here’s a few of the benefits probiotics can have:

  • Supporting your immune system and controlling around 70% of your immune response
  • Producing essential vitamins
  • Regulating hormones
  • Optimising nutrient absorption and digestion
  • Managing and reducing symptoms of various conditions and infections

Top probiotic foods

Now that you know what probiotics are, we’re going to take a look at some of the most popular probiotic foods you can consume in your diet.

Yoghurt

Not all yoghurt is made equal. When choosing a yoghurt you need to be looking carefully at the ingredients label to make sure they specify that “live active cultures” have been included. Yoghurt is initially made by combining Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus bacteria, after this, extra strains may be added. You’ll most commonly see strains like Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus reuteri and Lactobacillus acidophilus, which are all highly beneficial strains of probiotic. Sometimes you may also see Bifidobacterium strains included.

Lactobacilli strains actually have the handy function of being able to produce lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose (the sugars in milk). The addition of these probiotic strains in your yoghurt means that those with lactose intolerance may actually find it easier to digest than other dairy products! Lactobacilli strains have also been known to decrease the risk and severity of diarrhea, boost the immune system, fight gastric infections caused by pathogens and even assist in reducing the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases by supporting healthy vaginal flora.

When choosing a yoghurt brand, try to choose one that has the least sugar as this can be counter productive for your gut health. Sugar comes in many forms, too, so be wary of names like sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and cane sugar. Similarly, opt for the brand of yogurt that has the least added ingredients because simple is always best when it comes to probiotic products.

Kimchi 

This is a traditional Korean dish that’s made from fermented vegetables, usually cabbage, mixed with seasonings like sugar, salt, chill, ginger and garlic. Kimchi is a super healthy and tasty food that can assist with your immune system, brain health, skin quality and have an antioxidant effect that fights free radicals trying to cause damage to your cells. It’s usually fermented for a few days to a few weeks and contains vitamins A, B2, B6, B12, C and K plus folate, iron and more. Generally, Lactobacillus probiotic strains are used during the fermentation process, the awesome benefits of which have been mentioned above.

Additionally, the garlic included in kimchi can act as a prebiotic for your probiotics. Prebiotics fuel your friendly bacteria to help them thrive and strengthen them on their journey through your body towards your gut, so their effects will be optimised and multiplied in the large intestine specifically. 

Sauerkraut 

This is another fermented cabbage dish, but this one is popular in European countries. Like kimchi, it’s loaded up with a bunch of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, K1, B6, iron and potassium. Unlike kimchi, though, it’s a lot plainer in flavour as it’s traditionally not made with any seasoning other than salt. It’s made by simply massaging or pressing the salt into the cabbage to release its juices and start the fermentation process, then it’s left in a jar to complete the process over 1-2 weeks. 

If shopping for sauerkraut instead of making it at home, it’s always best to avoid added preservatives and sugars as a rule because they can decrease the potency and count of your probiotics. And if the label mentions that the sauerkraut has been pasteurised, steer clear of that brand as this process will kill any probiotics it may have contained beforehand. Another handy tip is to always grab varieties that are refrigerated as higher temperatures can also kill probiotics. 

Tempeh

This is made from cooked and fermented soybeans and is generally a very popular meat substitute used by vegans and vegetarians. It has a nutty, savoury flavour and a texture that’s similar to mushrooms. Tempeh is made through a fermentation process where the soybeans are broken down by friendly microorganisms and then compacted into a dense, chewy patty that can be fried, baked, steamed, marinated and more -it’s super versatile!

Aside from containing probiotics, tempeh is very high in protein (around 60% more than tofu), low in calories and sodium, and contains nutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium and riboflavin. However, as tempeh usually goes through a cooking process before being eaten where it’s exposing friendly bacteria to high temperatures, this can kill them off so it unfortunately won’t be as high in probiotics as some of the other options in this list. You can eat tempeh raw but this isn’t recommended as the fermentation process can sometimes cultivate harmful bacteria as well. 

Tempeh actually contains some prebiotic fibres, so they will be able to fuel any probiotics still left that make it through to your digestive system to colonise. Commercial versions of tempeh may be pasteurised which will kill off all probiotics so you may want to avoid these options. Keep in mind, though, if you’re opting for a non-pasteurised version it’s recommended that the tempeh is fully cooked before consuming to avoid harmful bacteria.

A research study published in 2018 explored the effects of fermented soybeans on rats with diabetes and found that they had a therapeutic effect that could help prevent the progression of the metabolic disease. Another research paper observed the effects of consuming bean and soy tempeh on the human body. They found that the soy tempeh was the best at stimulating growth of Bifidobacterium bacteria and when fried it also promoted the growth of Lactobacillus bacteria. Bean tempeh promoted the growth of Escherichia coli, which is normally harmless but can sometimes cause quite uncomfortable digestive upset, so we’d recommend opting for soy tempeh instead of bean.

Miso

Originating from Japan, miso is made by fermenting soybeans with koji fungus and salt to create a thick paste that’s used to make sauces, soups, pickle ingredients before use and more. It’s generally a light brown to red colour and has a salty, savoury flavour – described as ‘umami’. Miso is high in copper, manganese, vitamin K, protein and zinc, however, it also has quite a lot of salt so it’s not recommended to exceed 6 grams a day.

Again, when choosing a miso paste from a shop you’ll need to select the unpasteurised version to get the full benefits of the probiotics. And when cooking with it, aim for a hot temperature but not boiling as this will kill off the friendly bacteria. This research article briefly mentions that the consumption of miso can increase levels of Bacillus and Bifidobacterium in the intestinal flora. And this research study goes into the effects in a lot more detail, describing the positive immune modulating effects that certain strains of probiotic contained within miso have on the human body. They also say that miso can lower the risk of cancer, hypertension and inflammation and slow the effects of ageing.

Cottage cheese

This can be a bit of a tricky probiotic product to choose when you’re scouring all the different brands on the shelves. Not all cottage cheeses will contain probiotics so it’s really important that you check the label, just like with yoghurt, to ensure you see that “live active cultures” have been added. This kind of cheese is made from draining curdled milk and combining the leftover fresh curds to make a crumbly, lumpy cheese with a mild flavour. Probiotic cultures are added to boost its health value and cottage cheese is actually known to extend the life of probiotics in your gut, but it’s generally recommended to eat as a part of a healthy diet anyway due to its high protein and low calorie content.

Probiotic-rich drinks 

Whilst there’s lots of yummy foods that contain probiotics, there are also a few great drinks that can help you get a hit of friendly bacteria too, let’s take a look at some of the most popular now.

Kombucha

Kombucha has become very popular in the past few years and most chain supermarkets now stock it so it’s readily available. It’s a fermented tea that’s been around for hundreds of years, made by adding strains of beneficial bacteria, yeast and also sugar to green or black tea and allowing it to ferment for several weeks. This fermentation process forms a film on the liquid that is shaped similarly to the top of a mushroom and is filled with the beneficial bacteria and yeast, this film is scooped out and can then be used to create new kombucha. 

It’s a fizzy, tangy drink that comes in a huge range of flavours to suit just about everyone. Kombucha is high in catechins which are antioxidants that protect your cells from oxidative damage, small amounts of vitamins like B1, B6 and B12, and folic acid that helps your body maintain the health of new cells. A lot more research is needed into the actual effects of probiotics from kombucha on the body, however, it is thought that they assist with supporting healthy digestion and optimal gut health.

Kefir 

Kefir is made by adding kefir grains (colonies of beneficial bacteria and yeast cultures) to cow or goat’s milk, allowing them to ferment the sugars in the milk so they can multiply. The grains are then removed from the liquid with a strainer and you end up with a creamy but slightly tart drink rich in probiotics, vitamins and minerals that have some excellent health benefits for your gut.

Compared to kombucha, kefir has had heaps of research conducted into its probiotic effects (although you can never have enough evidence)! It’s been shown to help with lowering cholesterol levels, improving lactose intolerance and preventing gastroenteritis and vaginal infections through antimicrobial activity. This research paper advises that the reason kefir is so good at supporting optimal gut health is because it directly inhibits pathogens and crowds them out of the intestinal mucosa – it’s so effective that it’s even been used to treat peptic ulcers in the stomach! So this is a clever choice to include in your diet if you’re suffering from gastrointestinal discomfort.

Buttermilk 

This product is similar to kefir as it’s also a fermented milk drink that’s rich in probiotics, however, it’s a bit lower in fat content because of how it’s made. Buttermilk is the by-product of churning milk to create butter, the excess substance is then fermented with live bacteria cultures to create a yoghurt-based drink that’s tart and tangy, just like kefir. It’s a good source of protein, phosphorus, vitamin B12, potassium and riboflavin for energy production. And due to the fermentation process, lactose intolerance sufferers may be able to tolerate this product a bit better than other dairy products. This is a good alternative to try if you’re looking for something similar to kefir with all the same gut-supporting benefits.

Conclusion

The popularity of probiotics is definitely on the rise and if you’re someone who’s heard of the benefits then we hope you’re excited to incorporate some of the yummy foods and drinks we’ve mentioned today into your diet. There’s plenty of research to support the fact that probiotics can support your gut health to give you optimal digestion, boosted nutrient absorption, support your immune system and so much more! Whether it’s your favourite yoghurt or a refreshing kombucha, it’s never been easier or more enjoyable to support optimal gut health than it is now!

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