Probiotic foods and IBD

Probiotic foods are foods said to contain live and active bacteria which when eaten populate our gut. Find out everything you need to know about probiotic foods in this article.

What are probiotic foods and are there benefits to eating them?

The theory behind probiotic foods is that they contain live and active bacteria. When eaten this bacteria is said to populate our gut and hopefully goes on to thrive in our bodies. There are lots of reported health benefits in having a diverse and healthy microbiome and advocates of probiotic food say it helps to achieve this.

Many of the probiotic foods are made by using a fermentation process. Fermentation creates the perfect environment for bacteria to grow, thrive and survive. Our ancestors used to ferment a lot of food to stop it from spoiling. Now, with modern refrigeration, we no longer routinely ferment foods. Some people say this change means we are no longer getting as much of the good bacteria for our guts that our ancestors got.

It is difficult to measure exactly how much bacteria there is in fermented food and if any of this bacteria reaches our gut.


What foods contain probiotic bacteria?


Yogurt is made from milk which has been fermented by friendly bacteria. Some yogurts contain more live bacteria than others so always read the label. Look for ones which say 'live and active cultures'. Also choose yogurts that are natural and don’t contain added sugars or flavourings. Contains dairy.


Kefir is a fermented drink which is often made from milk, water or coconut milk. It has a very distinctive taste! It has been eaten for around 3,000 years. To make it kefir grains (cultures of lactic acid bacteria and yeast) are added to the liquid and left for a few days to ferment. A study has shown that kefir can actually help improve lactose digestion in those who are intolerant1Read more about kefir and IBD. You can easily make your own milk kefir using this recipe

Pickles (gherkins)

The naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria in cucumbers means that when they are adding to water and salt and left they ferment to create pickles (also known as gherkins). Make sure you buy varieties in brined water and sea salt instead of vinegar as ones in vinegar do not contain live probiotic bacteria.


Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage. When finely chopped and added to water and salt it ferments to create sauerkraut. Many supermarket varieties will have been pasteurised and this kills off the good bacteria so if you are buying from a shop make sure to choose an unpasteurised product. It's also really easy to make yourself using this sauerkraut recipe.


A Korean side dish made from fermented cabbage, cucumber or radish. It's flavoured with things such as chilli pepper flakes, garlic, ginger and sale and can often be spicy! It contains Lactobacillus kimchii as well as other probiotic strains.

Kombucha tea

An effervescent fermentation (using bacteria and yeast) of black tea or green tea. It originated in Japan and has been around for around 2,000 years. It is sold in in many Asian grocery stores.


Miso is a Japanese seasoning made from soybeans which are fermented using salt and a fungus called koji. It’s commonly used in Asian cooking and is used to make miso soup. 


Tempeh is high in protein and is often used as a meat substitute. It originates from Indonesia and is made from fermented soybeans.


A popular food in Japan made from fermented soybeans. It contains a bacteria strain called Bacillus subtilis.


Kvass is a popular fermented drink in eastern Europe. It has a taste similar to beer and is commonly made from stale, sourdough rye bread - though can also be made from fruits or beets. Flavours, such as fruit and herbs, may be added to it. 

Probiotic foods vs probiotic supplements

There are no studies which have been done to show whether eating probiotic foods or taking supplements is more beneficial.

Here are some of the things you may want to consider when deciding which may be best for you:

  • The bacteria in probiotic foods is naturally occurring, whereas the bacteria in supplements has been added. There is also a risk that the bacteria in the supplement won’t make it to you alive due to manufacturing process/storage times etc
  • Making your own probiotic foods is generally cheaper than buying probiotic supplements
  • Making probiotic foods can seem daunting or time-consuming
  • You can't easily measure what bacteria is growing in any food you make yourself or how much of it there is

Are there any risks to eating probiotic foods?

Some people find the increase in bacteria difficult and experience intestinal symptoms. This may be due to a condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) in which the bacteria which should be in your colon is actually living in your small intestine.

If you do find you are experiencing issues then you may want to try eating small amounts of probiotic foods at first and slowly increasing the amount.

If you are pregnant you should be wary of eating any unpasturised food - speak to your doctor before doing so.

It is also important to remember if you are making your own probiotic food that you cannot know what bacteria is in it.

Probiotic foods, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis

Researchers are starting to think that imbalances in our gut microbiome are linked to many diseases, ailments and even our mental health.

There is increasing evidence that suggests intestinal microbiota plays a role in initiating, maintaining and determining the characteristics and development of IBD2, 3. And, some people with IBD do report that taking probiotics can help with easing some of their symptoms.

However, studies into the effectiveness of probiotics on people with IBD are limited.

Learn more about probiotics and IBD

Making your own probiotic foods

If you are feeling adventurous you could try making your own probiotic foods. Here are some recipes for sauerkraut and milk kefir.



  1. Hertzler SR, Clancy SM. Kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 May;103(5):582-7. PMID: 12728216
  2. Sartor RB. Microbial influences in inflammatory bowel diseases. Gastroenterology 2008;134:577–594. | Article | PubMed | ISI | CAS |
  3. Sartor RB. Genetics and environmental interactions shape the intestinal microbiome to promote inflammatory bowel disease versus mucosal homeostasis. Gastroenterology 2010;139:1816–1819. | Article | PubMed | ISI |



Find this article useful?

Why not sign up to our mailing list and receive regular articles and tips about IBD to your inbox.

Find this article useful?

Why not sign up to our mailing list and receive regular articles and tips about IBD to your inbox?