Probiotics are the healthy bacteria that live in our gut. They help with digestion, and may also enhance the immune system and reduce risk of some health conditions (though the research on this is still mixed).
The term “probiotics” appears everywhere these days, and nearly every food company is making a probiotic-containing product. But not all these foods are created equal. Some offer a health benefit while others don’t. Here’s a little more about probiotics so you can decide what to eat and what to skip.
What foods contain probiotics?
Yogurt, kefir, some cottage cheese, buttermilk, kombucha, pickled vegetables like kimchi & sauerkraut, and fermented soybean products like tempeh, miso & natto. Anything that’s been “cultured” (after pasteurization or processing) probably contains beneficial bacteria.
Which of these is best?
Cultured dairy foods are thought to be the best source of probiotics because they buffer stomach acid/bile and enhance the growth of good bacteria. Yogurt is the most well-known dairy source of probiotics, but kefir has even more probiotics and may be more potent (a good thing). Eating a variety of cultured foods – with a focus on yogurt & kefir – is probably your best bet.
What if I don’t eat dairy?
If you’re dairy-free, pickled vegetables, fermented soy and kombucha are also great choices. But note: Even probiotic supplements and some non-dairy probiotic-containing products may contain small amounts of milk proteins, since these are often used to grow the probiotics. If you’re allergic to cow’s milk, make sure to read labels very carefully, monitor your symptoms and talk to your doctor.
Should I take probiotic supplements?
Studies have shown that many probiotic supplements don’t contain as many probiotics as they claim. In fact, a 2004 evaluation of 10 brands found that 8 of the brands had only 10% of what they claimed, and 2 of the brands had no viable probiotics whatsoever! Probiotics have a short shelf-life and are easily destroyed by acid and heat, so getting them from cultured foods is more reliable than from supplements.
What about all the probiotic-enhanced foods? Are those good?
It depends. Probiotic-containing juice drinks and chocolate bars are still just juice drinks and chocolate bars, and should not be considered “healthy.” Look for strains from lactobacillus or bifidobacterium when shopping for foods and remember that whole foods – not processed foods with probiotics added – are best.
Disclaimer: this advice should not replace the advice of your doctor or dietitian, and is not intended to cure any health condition.