Do probiotic foods have health benefits, and how do you choose between them?

Probiotic foods are all the rage – should you believe the hype?

probiotic foods
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Do probiotic foods live up to the hype, and how do you know that what you're buying has any health benefits? Probiotics are reportedly good for us – but how many of the claims are supported by science? 

Medical studies have confirmed that fermented foods, which have been consumed by humans for millennia, have health benefits beyond just their nutritional value. The live bacteria contained in these food types have been shown to improve gut health, which in turn leads to a stronger immune system and enhanced resistance to infections. Some people even report better skin and hair when eating probiotics regularly. Fortunately, there are plenty of food types to choose from – most of them very common and readily available. We explore the three main groups of probiotic foods you can get.

1. The dairy-based probiotic foods: yoghurt, kefir, and cheese

This is the most readily available sub-group of probiotic foods, enhanced with lactic acid bacteria and/or bifidobacteria. The great news is that both yoghurt and kefir are suitable for people who can't have dairy – these products are low in lactose, which is what people are intolerant to in milk. Unflavoured, full-fat Greek yoghurt is also a highly nutritious food that's rich in protein. 

It is important to look for a 'bio-live' label on any yoghurt you buy, as many products sold as yoghurt do not contain any beneficial bacteria. Try to avoid low-fat products, as they're usually loaded with sugar to compensate for the low fat content. Also, if you're vegan, you can still take advantage of probiotics by buying probiotic coconut yoghurt

Don't like yoghurt or kefir at all? Try increasing your cheese intake: several types of cheeses, notably cheddar and mozzarella, contain probiotics. Cheese is also very nutritious, as it's an excellent source of protein and fat. So, even if it doesn't contain probiotics, it's still a good addition to a healthy diet.

2. Fermented foods: sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles

Fermented foods are a fun and flavoursome way to add probiotics to your diet, especially if you're not keen on dairy. These salty and tangy foods make a wonderful accompaniment to hot meals from soups to bangers and mash. To qualify as a fermented food, however, it needs to have been preserved in lactic acid, which is a source of beneficial bacteria strains. Watch out for commercially manufactured gherkins preserved in vinegar – these have no gut health benefits. Always read the ingredient label and avoid anything with vinegar. To get the real deal, purchase these foods from specialist world food stores, or online. You can also quite easily make either of these yourself – you'll just need some sterilised glass jars and lactic acid. 

3. Fermented seasonings and pastes: miso, tempeh, and natto

Miso, tempeh, and natto are all soybean-based products, with a salty-umami taste. Miso is typically used to make the traditional Japanese miso soup, while natto is mixed into rice. Tempeh is more like tofu, although it uses whole soy beans and has a different texture. All of these foods contain friendly bacteria and yeast thanks to how they've been processed, as well as host of beneficial vitamins and minerals. They're a great option for people who don't like the sour taste of pickled foods.

4. Kombucha: the fermented tea

Kombucha is an increasingly popular fermented tea drink that is popular in Eastern European and some Asian countries. It has an intriguing, yeasty flavour that many find addictive. However, you should bear in mind that kombucha is not sugar free and even contains alcohol (around 0.5 per cent). The evidence that kombucha has health benefits is lacking, although the fact that it does contain live bacteria suggests that it might have similar benefits to the other products in the 'probiotic' category.  

Are probiotic foods right for everyone? 

The beneficial properties of probiotic foods have elevated them to a 'superfood' status, but if you've never tried these foods before, introduce them little by little and pay attention to how your body reacts. Some people report severe bloating while consuming probiotics – as the foods work to kill harmful bacteria in your gut, you may feel quite a bit of discomfort. 

Some people also report getting a headache after eating them, because probiotics have been shown to stimulate the nervous system. And a small proportion of people will even be allergic or intolerant to some of the organic compounds found in these foods, leading to a range of symptoms from an upset stomach to skin rashes. 

This isn't to discourage you from trying probiotic foods – but it's always better to try one food at a time, in a small quantity first. If you do find that you don't tolerate them, a probiotic supplement is your best option. Also avoid fermented foods if you're currently on antibiotics.