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 - some yogurts contain more live bacteria than others so always read the label. Choose yogurts that are natural and don’t contain added sugars. This option also isn’t good if you struggle with eating dairy
Kefir - you can make your own kefir to be either milk or water/coconut based. It has a very distinctive taste! It has been eaten for around 3,000 years. A study has shown that kefir can actually help improve lactose digestion in those who are intolerant1.Read more about kefir and IBD.
Pickles - make sure you buy varieties in brined water and sea salt instead of vinegar
Sauerkraut - fermented cabbage. Many supermarket varieties will have been pasturised and this kills off the good bacteria. It’s probably better to make your own
Sourdough bread - contains strains of lactobacillus. You could try making your own, although this isn’t a good option if you react to gluten
Kimchi - a Korean side dish made from fermented cabbage, cucumber or radish. It can often be spicy!
Kombucha tea - an effervescent fermentation of black tea. It originated in Japan and has been around for around 2,000 years. Can be found in many Asian grocery stores
Miso - soybeans fermented with brown rice. It’s commonly used in Asian cooking
Tempeh - a meat substitute made from fermented soybeans
Natto - a popular food in Japan made from fermented soybeans
Kvass - a popular fermented drink in eastern Europe
Dark chocolate - it contains probiotics and antioxidants. It also contains added sugar (unless you are eating 100% dark chocolate) so be careful
Microalgae - often found in health food shops this plant is ground and can be added to juices
Olives in brine
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Sartor RB. Microbial influences in inflammatory bowel diseases. Gastroenterology 2008;134:577–594. | Article | PubMed | ISI | CAS |
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 |
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