Published 14th July 2022

The best probiotic foods to include in your diet

Probiotic foods contain live bacteria that can benefit the community of bugs in your gut. This community of trillions of microbes — called the gut microbiome — plays a major role in your overall health

Many foods that provide probiotic bacteria are fermented. Fermentation means using the controlled growth of microbes in the production process. 

For example, to make kefir, you add kefir grains that ferment milk. 

However, not all fermented foods are probiotic foods. A probiotic, by definition, has to be beneficial for your health. Some bacteria are great at fermenting foods but don’t necessarily come with any health benefits. 

By eating probiotic foods on a regular basis, you can influence the makeup of your gut microbiome.

The ZOE at-home test provides a breakdown of the “good” and “bad” bacteria in your gut. Based on your unique test results, we can give you personalized nutrition advice so you can encourage more of the “good” bugs. 

You can take our free quiz to get started.

Keep reading to learn more about the best probiotic foods for health and how to incorporate them in your diet. 

1. Yogurt

You can find yogurt in most grocery stores, but not all of them are probiotic. 

Manufacturers add live bacteria to milk that curdle and thicken it to create yogurt. However, these microbes often die in the production process. So, make sure to look at the label for “active cultures” or “live cultures.” 

While yogurt’s probiotic properties are a relatively new discovery, references to its health benefits date back to 6000 B.C. India. 

More recently, a 2021 review of over 100 studies linked yogurt to potential benefits such as:

  • improved gut, bone, and heart health

  • lower risk of certain cancers

  • lower risk of type 2 diabetes 

Those people sticking to dairy-free yogurt need not feel left out. Many vegan and lactose-free yogurt products also contain probiotics. Check on the label for “live cultures.” 

2. Some cheeses

Some cheeses also have probiotic properties that may benefit gut health and cholesterol levels.

Cheesemakers use live bacteria to convert lactose, a sugar naturally occurring in milk, to lactic acid. They then add an enzyme called rennet that curdles the milk into cheese.

Most of the best cheese-based sources of probiotics are those that have gone through aging but not heating, as the heat can kill off the bugs. 

These include:

  • Swiss

  • provolone

  • aged cheddar 

  • Gouda

  • Edam

  • Gruyère

  • Parmesan

Cottage cheese can contain live cultures, but make sure it says “live cultures” on the label. Blue cheeses, like Stilton, can also provide a wide range of bacteria. 

3. Kefir

Like cheese and yogurt, kefir is a form of fermented milk. 

In addition to the probiotics used in production, kefir offers an extra boost, as these microbes can continue to multiply while in storage. 

Research with human volunteers is limited, but there is some evidence that kefir may be beneficial for:

  • managing type 2 diabetes

  • improving gut health

  • promoting healthy weight loss

  • reducing inflammation 

Kefir has an acidic, zingy taste and creamy consistency. It’s a tasty way to ground the sweetness of smoothies, popsicles, or ice creams.

You can also use kefir in savory dishes like summer salads or as a substitute for spreadable cheese.

Alternatively, you can ditch the spoon and simply drink it straight up.

4. Kombucha

Kombucha is a fermented tea drink that originates in either China or Japan. 

To make traditional kombucha, you add a colony of friendly microbes, called a SCOBY, to black or green tea. However, due to a rise in popularity, kombucha now has a wider range of starter teas.

Kombucha is slightly fizzy and comes in a variety of flavors that include fruits, herbs, and spices. 

A 2014 review found that bacteria from kombucha could have probiotic effects benefiting cardiovascular disease risk and blood sugar control. But most of the research was done in animal models.  

Be mindful that some kombuchas contain high levels of sugar, sweeteners, or other additives. 

5. Miso

Originating in Japan, miso is a fermented soybean paste. Not only a star in soups, miso can also add an umami earthiness to salads, stir-fries, and even cakes.

Miso makers ferment the soybean paste with a culture called koji. The longer they ferment the paste, the darker it appears and the stronger it tastes.

Research with miso has suggested that it may benefit:

  • blood sugar control

  • cancer risk

  • heart disease risk

  • gut health

While miso contains live cultures, not all of them are necessarily helpful probiotics. Eating a wide range of probiotic foods gives you the best chance of reaping their health benefits.

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6. Tempeh

Believed to have originated in Indonesia many millennia ago, tempeh also has its roots in fermented soybeans. 

The soybeans are only slightly fermented, so the flavor isn’t too intense. Tempeh is incredibly versatile and can replace most meats. You can crumble it into stir-fries, cook it as a veggie burger, or bake it in a casserole. 

However, if you heat tempeh to high temperatures, it’s likely that you’ll kill the probiotics bacteria. 

Although some evidence suggests tempeh may benefit the microbiome, research has generally been in animals or small groups of humans. 

Scientists need to carry out larger human studies to draw solid conclusions.

7. Kimchi

A traditional Korean treasure, kimchi involves fermenting vegetables with herbs. These typically include ginger, garlic, chili peppers, salt, sugar, and onions.

Kimchi has an exciting flavor that you can eat by itself or as a pairing with rice, grains, or chicken. Alternatively, you can include it in stews, scrambled eggs, or sauces, but cooking it may kill the probiotic bacteria.

Some studies have linked kimchi to possible health benefits, such as improved digestion, microbiome changes, and cholesterol levels. 

However, most current research has been in animals or short, small-scale human studies. 

8. Sauerkraut

Despite its German name, sauerkraut originated in China. Similar to kimchi, sauerkraut is a form of fermented cabbage. 

Sauerkraut is a special source of lactic acid-producing bacteria, if it’s raw and uncooked.

Lactic acid-producing bacteria are a major player in providing probiotic health boosts that may help reduce inflammation.

Sauerkraut may also benefit digestion and promote healthy cholesterol levels.

You can eat sauerkraut as a side salad with your mains, throw it on avocado toast, or eat it with rice or potatoes. It also works superbly as a dip or guacamole topping.

The benefits of probiotic foods

Aside from being a delicious addition to a wide range of meals, probiotic foods provide several possible health benefits. 

Probiotic foods may improve gut health by creating an environment that helps “good” bacteria thrive in your gut. This may produce several health benefits, including:

  • Reduced inflammation and improved immunity. Inflammation is a healthy response to perceived threats, but regular inflammation can create health problems. Probiotics may help you reduce inflammation while also defending against infections.

  • Better control of blood sugars and fats. Probiotics may help control your blood sugar and keep your cholesterol levels within a healthy range. Regular blood sugar spikes can increase your risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. High cholesterol can also lead to increased blood pressure and heart problems.

  • Cancer prevention. Your gut contains bile acids that help break down food, but they can also cause your colon to become too acidic. This can increase your risk for cancer. Specific probiotic strains may play a role in controlling gut acidity and help reduce colon cancer risk.

There’s little evidence available in large populations to confirm the wider benefits of probiotic foods, but smaller-scale research shows their potential. 

ZOE’s PREDICT 1 study included more than 1,000 people and found that including fermented foods in your diet can help keep your gut healthy.

How to include probiotic foods in your diet

Prof. Tim Spector, one of ZOE’s lead scientists, recommends eating small amounts of probiotic foods regularly, rather than eating a large amount every now and then.

If you are new to probiotic foods, start slowly and eat small amounts so your palate and gut can get used to the new foods. You can try mixing in your probiotics with other foods so the flavors won’t be too strong. 

Whether you add some kefir and yogurt to your breakfast, try a new cheese in a sandwich, or mix up your dinner plans by incorporating sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, or kimchi, there is bound to be a probiotic food out there for you. 

Probiotics are potentially powerful, but they’re just a single jigsaw piece in the much larger puzzle of your overall diet. 

Eating plenty of prebiotic fiber from plants provides the “good” bugs with the food they need to thrive.

In fact, the American Gut Project found that people who eat 30 plants a week have a greater microbiome diversity than those who only eat 10 plants a week.

Summary

Probiotic foods, including yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso, and a whole range of cheeses, may be the route to a healthier gut and beyond. 

These foods can play a key role as part of a balanced, nutritious diet. They may help you manage gut and heart health, improve your immune responses, and manage your blood sugar and fat levels.

While research on the benefits is limited to animal and laboratory studies for many of these foods, the findings are encouraging. 

At ZOE, we know how important nutrition is to living a healthy life. We also know that there is no single approach that works for everyone. 

With our at-home test, we give you a breakdown of the “good” and “bad” bugs that you currently have in your gut. We also analyze how your blood sugar and blood fat levels respond to food. 

Using this information, we can give you nutrition advice tailored to your body. 

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