Chances are, you’ve heard a little about probiotics. More and more products that boast of probiotic power fill the grocery store shelves each year, especially in the beverage aisle. Drinks like kombucha, apple cider vinegar tonics, and probiotic “shots” all promise to be good for your belly. Is it all just a marketing scam, or are probiotics actually the real deal for gut health?
What Are Probiotics?
Perhaps a bit of both. Probiotics are living microorganisms that may help your intestines digest food, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. While it may be creepy to imagine your digestive tract chock-full of bacteria, these microorganisms flourish in your body already and seem to be critical in such processes as preventing diseases and manufacturing vitamins.
The microorganisms found in probiotic foods are similar or the same as some of those that naturally inhabit your gut.
So far, research has found that probiotics may be especially beneficial for people already dealing with tummy trouble: those with digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease, or people with diarrhea caused by infections or antibiotics.
Certain infections and antibiotics can hurt your gut flora, which means your population of good bacteria is low and your digestive function may take a hit. Foods that contain probiotics can help repopulate the good-for-you microorganisms to improve your GI health, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Probiotics in Foods vs. Supplements
However, research is still being done of the effectiveness of probiotic supplements (or all those probiotic elixirs taking over the beverage aisle at Whole Foods), but you can get a probiotic boost from a variety of traditional foods that naturally contain them. In addition to being well-known sources of probiotics, these foods also come with other nutritional benefits that supplements don’t have, like protein, fiber, and calcium.
Probiotic foods are basically fermented foods—you know, those slightly sour and pleasantly tangy foods.
Here are the food sources of probiotics you can look for at your grocery store.
Yogurt. Look for plain yogurt that has “live active cultures.” You might see words like Lactobacillus (that’s a type of bacteria) in the ingredients. Certain flavored yogurts may have those probiotics actually processed out to increase shelf life. (Learn more ideas to make your plain yogurt more exciting.)
Non-dairy yogurt. Yep, yogurts made from coconut, cashew, soy, and almond milk can also have probiotic benefits. That’s because the probiotics come from the fermentation process, not from the milk. Your best option is unsweetened varieties, and be sure to check for the presence of “active cultures” in the ingredients.
Kefir. This word was nearly unheard of just five or 10 years ago, but it’s now becoming pretty commonplace in most grocery stores. It’s basically drinkable yogurt, originating from Russia in the mid-1800s.
Miso paste. You’ve probably had miso soup before, but less people are familiar with miso paste itself. Made from fermented soybeans, this paste is a seasoning product from traditional Japanese cooking. You can also use it to make broths, salad dressings, and marinades.
Kimchi. A staple in Korean cuisine, kimchi is a popular side dish made from fermented vegetables like cabbage and radishes.
Sauerkraut. More than just a hot dog topping, sauerkraut is essentially the German version of kimchi. It’s basically pickled and fermented cabbage. Before modern refrigeration, it provided Germans with a way to get their veggies during the winter.
Tempeh. With vegetarian diets becoming more common in the United States, tempeh is increasingly easier to find in stores. Tempeh is essentially a fermented soybean patty, originating from Indonesia. It’s more firm than spongy tofu, and it’s also higher in protein and fiber than tofu. (Try it out with these jerk-seasoned tempeh tacos.)
Some cheeses. Don’t immediately run out and stock up on Velveeta. Look for aged cheeses, like parmesan and gouda. (Sadly, the mozz on your pizza is not a source of probiotics.)
An important caveat: Adding probiotics to your diet won’t automatically cure your gut problems. Like all so-called superfoods, they help you out when they’re part of an overall healthy diet—one loaded up with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and lots and lots of water.