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Ask an RD: What’s the best way to get probiotics through food?

October 06, 2020

Probiotic is the new buzzword in the health food industry. Probiotic strains are now being added to everything from chips and granola to nut butters. Thanks to marketing these trendy foods can often overshadow foods naturally rich in probiotics. But are these foods with added probiotics really worth the hype? 

One thing for sure, it can definitely add to the confusion around choosing the best sources of probiotics. Keep reading to find out the best food sources of probiotics. Plus, what to look for when picking foods with probiotics so you know you’re gut is getting all of the benefits. 
 

What are probiotics?

Your gut is home to trillions of microorganisms that play a critical role in our overall health. Having a healthy gut microbiome helps carry out digestive, metabolic, and immune functions 1. It’s also linked to numerous health benefits including improved digestion, immune function, healthier skin, mood, weight loss, and a reduced risk of many diseases (1, 2). One of the best ways to support your body while keeping a healthy balance of gut bacteria is with daily probiotics. 

Probiotics are live microorganisms (mainly bacteria and yeasts) that can provide health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. Because of the health benefits, probiotics are commonly referred to as “good” bacteria.

What to Look for When Choosing Food Sources of Probiotics 

While you can take probiotics supplements, incorporating food sources of probiotics has its benefits. When eating probiotic-rich foods, you’re also getting a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber.

But there’s a caveat. In order for you to get the probiotic benefit through foods, the probiotic bacteria must be alive at the time of consumption (3). So while many foods now have added probiotics, factors related to food processing and storage like pasteurization can affect the survival of probiotic organisms.

In order to ensure you’re getting the probiotic benefits (any not wasting your money!), here’s what to look for when choosing probiotic foods:

  • Make sure to look for the words “live” or “active cultures”, especially when choosing yogurts or fermented drinks.

  • Choose “unpasteurized” sauerkraut or fermented vegetables since pasteurization typically kills live bacteria.

  • Cooking can destroy beneficial probiotics. To maintain the probiotics, try eating the probiotic foods raw or lightly heated. For example, slightly steaming tempeh and avoid adding miso to boiling liquid. 


The Best Food Sources of Probiotics

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Probiotic bacteria can be found in a variety of foods. You can find live probiotics in cultured dairy and dairy-alternatives like yogurt and kefir, and some fermented foods. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented vegetables, traditionally fermented pickles, tempeh, natto, miso, and kombucha use bacteria as a form of preservation. However, not all fermented foods contain live active probiotic cultures. The best food sources of probiotics are those with live, active cultures to ensure the bacteria is live at the time of consumption.

The top food sources of probiotics that contain live active cultures include:

- Sauerkraut

- Kimchi

- Fermented vegetables

- Yogurt and Kefir (dairy or plant-based)

- Natto

- Miso

You may be surprised that tempeh, sourdough, and kombucha didn’t make the list. Unfortunately, most tempeh (especially those purchased at the grocery store) are pasteurized. While fermentation occurs to make sourdough bread the probiotics are killed off during the cooking process.

In terms of kombucha or other fermented beverages or teas, some research shows that this isn’t a reliable source of probiotics. For example, some brands use pasteurization in their processing to slow bacteria growth. Plus, most commercial kombuchas have a lot of added sugar. We know too much added sugar can negatively affect gut health (1). That being said, if you enjoy kombucha drinking it occasionally may provide some probiotic benefits but it’s best to focus on other probiotic foods for your daily dose of probiotics. 

Looking to add some more probiotics to your day? Pair a bowl of yogurt with our Soft Baked Bars or add some fermented veggies to the top of a flatbread!

About the RD

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Jessica Bippen, MS, RD, founder of Nourished by Nutrition.

She believes in a forever approach to living well by helping others understand the science behind nutrition and wellness while tailoring it to their unique body and lifestyle. She's the author of Collagen: Self-Care Secrets to Eat, Drink, and Glow and is frequently featured in media outlets including HUM Nutrition, Well+Good, Free People, and Tammy Hembrow Fitness.  

Follow along with Nourished by Nutrition on Instagram for more tips, recipes, and wellness inspiration. 
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