These Are the 16 Natural Probiotic Foods that You Should Include in Your Diet

Natural probiotic foods can be included in a varied diet to promote a balanced gut microbiota. Here are 16 amazing options!
These Are the 16 Natural Probiotic Foods that You Should Include in Your Diet
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 28 May, 2024

The intestinal microbiota is the community of microorganisms that permanently reside in the human digestive tract. It plays a crucial role in the regulation of multiple body functions. To maintain its balance, a good option is to include natural probiotic foods in the diet.

These are characterized by their content of bacteria, yeasts, and archaea that are beneficial to health. When they enter our intestines and settle there, they boost the capacity of the immune system and improve the functioning of the digestive system.

Although probiotics are available in the form of supplements -which we can take under medical supervision-, several fermented foods serve as natural sources of these beneficial bacteria. Which are the most recommended? Here are 16 options.

1. Yogurt

Yogurt is the probiotic food par excellence. It’s distributed almost all over the world, it’s made commercially and at home and several scientific studies have proven its qualities for human health.

For its manufacture, milk is fermented with different strains of lactic bacteria. The most commonly used are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. During the process, the microorganisms convert lactose into lactic acid, which gives thickness to the preparation.

Some commercial versions deliberately incorporate other probiotic strains in their preparation, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus or Bifidobacterium bifidum.

Although sometimes people with lactose intolerance do not assimilate it well, the truth is that many can drink it. Why? Well, because fermentation reduces much of the natural lactose.

However, it’s a good idea to pay attention to some details when choosing one or another yogurt option on the market. If the idea is to take advantage of the probiotic properties, one with little large-scale intervention in its production is preferable.

The so-called “natural” or “homemade” ones usually have more beneficial strains available. However, in these cases, it’s necessary to consider food safety issues and verify whether or not there was pasteurization.

2. Kefir

Kefir is one of the probiotic foods obtained by fermenting milk, although there is also water kefir. It’s based on grains or nodules composed of lactic bacteria and yeasts that form a gelatinous matrix.

These transform sugars into lactic acid and carbon dioxide, resulting in an effervescent drink. The bacteria it contains – especially Lactobacillus species – are linked to several health benefits.

According to information from Nutrients magazine, they modulate the body’s defenses, promote antioxidation, regulate blood cholesterol, and contribute to diabetes control. And beyond providing microorganisms, kefir contains calcium (when milk is used), magnesium, vitamin K, and B vitamins.

The drink is currently produced in an artisanal way and is available in commercial presentations. To use these versions to improve the microbiota, read the label carefully and check the strains available in the presentation.

3. Tempeh

Tempeh is an economical fermented beverage that also functions as a source of protein. It originates from Asia and is derived from soybeans.

Soybeans are fermented with the help of Rhizopus fungi. The spores form a network that binds the beans together, creating a compact structure. Therefore, it’s a preparation with a particular texture, very firm.

In vegetarian and vegan diets, it has recently gained prominence. Its proteins are ideal to help cover the requirements of this macronutrient in the absence of meat in these diets. It can be cooked roasted, sautéed, grilled, or shredded in stews and sauces.

4. Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is one of the natural probiotics that earned the nickname ‘superfood’. It’s obtained by fermenting white cabbage in salt water. The process is carried out by lactic acid bacteria that are naturally present in the leaves of the vegetable.

Although sauerkraut is low in calories and could be part of weight loss plans, it should be considered that its salt intake can be high. Therefore, it’s best to regulate its intake, especially in people diagnosed with high blood pressure.

This food emerged as a method of preservation and can be homemade, but now it’s also an ingredient in haute cuisine. Its tart, crunchy flavor can complement other intense tastes.

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5. Miso

Miso is a traditional Japanese condiment that is produced by fermenting soybeans, along with other grains. The probiotic itself is obtained from the koji mushroom, but it’s not immediate. There are misos that are manufactured for years.

Research on its properties have postulated it as an anti-inflammatory food and an adjunct in the treatment of gastrointestinal diseases. It’s also a source of protein, B vitamins, and minerals such as manganese and zinc.

There are several varieties of miso. The most common types are white (shiromiso), red (akamiso), and yellow (shinsu).

6. Kombucha

Kombucha is a fermented beverage made from tea. It involves the action of microorganisms that form a colony known as SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast ).

The brewing process takes from one week to one month. The result is a sweet and sour liquid with a slight effervescence. Fruits, herbs, and spices can also be added for flavoring.

Although it’s safe for most people, caution is advised due to the levels of sugar or alcohol that may be present and that establish risks in the consumption of kombucha. In the case of buying a commercial presentation, the label should be checked in detail.

7. Pickled gherkins

Among natural probiotic foods, pickled gherkins may be among the least recognized. They are produced by a fermentation process that involves soaking them in a solution of salt water and spices.

Lactic acid bacteria naturally present in the food initiate the breakdown of sugars into lactic acid. Thus, more Lactobacillus grows and, in turn, the product keeps longer.

The tart and refreshing taste makes them a popular choice as a hot season snack. However, their high sodium content warrants caution, especially among people with cardiovascular problems.

8. Kimchi

Kimchi is a traditional Korean food. It’s prepared by fermenting vegetables, with priority given to Chinese cabbage.

During fermentation, bacteria convert the sugars present in the vegetables into lactic acid. The final result is a food with an umami taste.

There is no single processing technique. Each geographical area in Korea has a different method, so the taste and texture may have variations.

9. Probiotic cheeses

Some cheeses may contain strains of beneficial bacteria and act as natural probiotic foods. However, not all of them meet this condition, since during the manufacturing process there are treatments such as heating and pressing, which tend to eliminate live bacteria.

Some types that may contain probiotics are the following:

  • Soft cheeses: blue cheese, brie and camembert.
  • Fermented cheeses: cheddar, Swiss, and handmade gouda.
  • Cottage: since it doesn’t go through a long ripening process, this cheese is less likely to lose its beneficial bacteria.

10. Fermented fish

Fermentation of fish is a food practice in various cultures and regions of the world. The lutefisk of Nordic cuisine and some varieties of bagoong in Asia are examples.

The utonga-kupsu, native to an ethnic group in India, was analyzed for its properties. Scientists found up to 6 different strains of probiotics present there.

In general, fermented fish is prepared with salt and left to mature. Therefore, it’s also a preservation method for this white meat.

11. Buttermilk

Buttermilk is a potential source of probiotics, but its ability to provide bacteria depends on the processing method. The traditional, homemade variant does have beneficial microorganisms, as it consists of separating the whey part directly from the milk.

Commercial versions are not probiotic. The use as a direct beverage seems to be restricted to some Asian countries. Therefore, its benefits in the rest of the world would not be obtained, as the commercial form prevails.

Some whey is then used to produce yogurt or kefir. They can also be the basis for homemade butter.

12. Pickled onions

Pickled onions can be natural probiotic foods because of lactic fermentation bacteria. Soaking them in a salt and water solution creates an environment conducive to the growth of microorganisms that were already inhabiting the surface of the vegetable.

The product can be enjoyed on its own or as a side dish in salads and sandwiches. The flavor is tangy and the texture is crunchy. As with all pickles, care should be taken regarding salt content.

13. Pickled beets

This food is made by cooking beets and marinating them in a solution of vinegar, water, sugar, and spices. This creates an environment conducive to the growth of beneficial bacteria.

It’s common for pickled beet recipes to include other vegetables at the same time, such as garlic. The preparation is then used as a garnish, in salads, appetizers, or in sandwiches.

Like this article? You may also like to read: Natto, the Viscous Japanese Food that Provides Probiotics

14. Sourdough bread

Sourdough is a mixture of flour and water that has been fermented by lactic bacteria and natural yeasts. During the fermentation process, some strains of Lactobacillus may be present.

The longer the sourdough is allowed to ferment before the bread is made, the greater the likelihood that some probiotic strains will be present. However, baking at high temperatures during baking may reduce the viability of the microorganisms.

15. Natto

Natto is a traditional Japanese dish based on fermented soybeans. The bacterium Bacillus subtilis var. natto is responsible for the process.

As part of the natural probiotic foods, there’s been a lot of research on its health effects. It has even been associated with a reduction in mortality among people who consume it regularly.

The texture is viscous and sticky. Its taste is umami. In addition to probiotics, it’s a source of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It also contains the enzyme nattokinase, with possible benefits for cardiovascular health. It’s often consumed over rice. Sometimes, it’s mixed with mustard and soy sauce.

We think you may be interested in reading this, too: What’s the Difference between Prebiotics and Probiotics?

16. Apple cider vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is obtained through the fermentation of the sugars present in apples. The first fermentation is alcoholic and the subsequent fermentation is acetic.

Some commercial brands of the product do not pasteurize it to preserve the beneficial bacteria and yeasts. So, if you want apple cider vinegar that is part of the natural probiotic foods, you’ll need to make it clear on the label that it isn’t filtered or pasteurized.

Probiotic supplements or fermented foods: which to choose?

Commercial probiotic supplements are made with specific strains that ensure a certain concentration of microorganisms reaches the intestine. On the other hand, with fermented foods, we cannot control the production of bacteria or the specific type of strains.

In their favor, the foods are cheaper, several can be prepared at home and provide other health benefits in addition to improving the microbiota. Fermented foods, consciously and planned included in the diet, increase the diversity of the gut fleet and reduce systemic inflammation.

In a 2016 comparative study, researchers concluded that both supplements and probiotic foods are effective in bringing beneficial bacteria to the gut. However, the authors stress that the latter is more practical and easier to implement in communities.

So, if you have the opportunity to regularly consume yogurt, for example, don’t waste it. Then, if in a medical consultation, the professional indicates a particular probiotic, take the one they have suggested for the recommended time.

Get advice on natural probiotic foods from a nutritionist

Many nutrition professionals specialize in natural probiotics. With them it’s possible to design an eating plan that includes them in the right amounts, taking advantage of their benefits and minimizing the drawbacks.

A nutritionist will perform a complete evaluation of your health. Based on this, he or she will guide you toward choosing fermented foods that suit your preferences and needs. As you incorporate them, he or she will also closely monitor your progress and adjust recommendations.

The pursuit of digestive health is a priority and has implications for the rest of the body’s functions. Therefore, having the guidance of a professional can make a big difference.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.