Gut health may seem like a trendy topic, but it’s far from a fad. Research over the years has linked the gut microbiome to a number of health outcomes, including diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal disease, and depression. If you want to improve your health, one of the best places to start is with the trillions of bacteria living inside your digestive tract. Keep them happy, and you’ll reap the rewards with a strong immune system, more energy, improved mood, and better overall health.
So how do you improve and maintain a healthy gut? One part of the equation is eating foods that help introduce more of the good bacteria, improving the diversity and amount of beneficial microbes in your digestive tract. Probiotic foods include various strains of beneficial bacteria that can colonize in your digestive system after you eat them. Some foods have naturally occurring beneficial bacteria that are multiplied through fermentation, while other foods routinely have probiotics added to them.
Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of probiotics, and for more healthy eating tips to support optimal gut health, find out What Yogurt Does for Your Gut.
What are probiotics & probiotic foods?
Probiotics are bacteria and yeasts that have positive effects on the body. This beneficial bacteria can be found on every body surface, with an incredible amount colonizing in the digestive tract—anywhere from 10 to 100 trillion! Living among the good bacteria is plenty of bad bacteria. However, probiotic foods can help keep a positive balance in the gut, keeping the negative effects of the bad bacteria at bay.
Probiotic foods either naturally contain probiotics through the process of fermentation or have had bacterial strains added to them. Two of the most common strains of beneficial bacteria added to foods are lactic acid bacteria and Bifidobacteria. However, there are many other health-promoting strains naturally found in and added to foods.
Fruits, vegetables, and grains all have naturally occurring bacteria on the skin, which multiply during the fermentation process. At some point in the production process, fermented foods will have varying amounts of beneficial yeasts or bacteria in them. Even so, this doesn’t necessarily make all fermented foods probiotics.
Are all fermented foods probiotics?
Many fermented foods lose their probiotics during processing. Foods like sourdough, chocolate, or heat-treated fermented vegetables, or sauerkraut don’t have live organisms by the time we eat them because of the heat used during processing. And while beer and wine are fermented, the yeasts and bacteria that were once present are removed before it reaches your hands.
A March 2020 study in Foods found that pressure-treating yogurt containing Bifidobacterium bifidum and Lactobacillus casei only slightly reduced the amount of active culture in the food. This suggests that fermented foods that are pressure treated instead of heat treated for preservation could still include beneficial bacteria.
How probiotics can support your health
Fermented foods that are typically eaten with beneficial bacteria present, like kimchi, kombucha, and tempeh, will have some amount of beneficial bacteria in them. Still, in many of these foods, the amount and strains of bacteria you get from eating them are unknown.
Overall, probiotics support a healthy gut microbiome, but each individual strain comes with its own potential health benefits, including improved mood, relieving constipation or diarrhea, and supporting the immune system. Probiotics and the gut microbiome are vigorously being researched, and new potential benefits are still being discovered.
The friendly bacteria in the gut creates a barrier, which helps to prevent bad bacteria from invading and making us sick. The probiotics also feed on prebiotics, certain undigestible fibers that we eat, and produce beneficial byproducts like short-chain fatty acids, which increase nutrient absorption and help fight inflammation.
Yogurt is one of the most well-known probiotic foods. Live active cultures are added to milk, breaking down lactose and creating lactic acid. The fermentation of milk by the live active cultures gives yogurt its characteristic tangy taste and thick and creamy texture.
While all yogurt will have some amount of probiotics in them, they’re not all created equal.