Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez

Probiotic is the new buzzword in the healthy food world. Probiotics are being added to everything from cereal bars to nut butters. The good gut bacteria also naturally occur in fermented foods. So what's the big deal about these tiny bacteria?

Jamie Vespa, MS, RD
January 26, 2017

Sure, we know yogurt is good for us. It contains vitamins, minerals, protein, and bugs. Bugs? Yes, but don't panic. They're friendly. Probiotics can improve a number of health conditions, from overall immune function to gut health and more. But, what exactly are probiotics (besides, well, bugs) and what is their role in the human body? Here, we learn why supermarket shelves are popping with new probiotic products and why we should be including them in our diet.

Probiotics Are Beneficial Bacteria

Probiotics are the bacterial powerhouses that help change or repopulate gut bacteria to optimize the health of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. These live cultures are found naturally in the body. However, we can also consume probiotics from food, beverages, and supplements. In addition to helping maintain the balance of our gut flora, probiotics are also praised for their ability to boost immunity, manage symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, mitigate certain allergy symptoms, and lessen symptoms of lactose intolerance.

A healthy gut is a key player in the health of our immune system. The trillions of bacteria that live in our GI tract are what make up our intestinal flora. A healthy flora can play a role in the maturing of immune cells and block the passage of bad bacteria into the blood, which causes bloating and gas. The good bacteria found in probiotics can help maintain health by resisting bad bacteria and other harmful substances, as well as support digestion and nutrient absorption.

What Are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are non-digestible food components that promote the growth of healthful bacteria in your gut. In essence, they are "good" bacteria promoters. In addition to improving digestive health, prebiotics can also enhance calcium absorption. Prebiotics are components of nondigestible fibers and are found in many plant foods. Rich sources of prebiotics include garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, dandelion greens, and sunchokes. Prebiotics and probiotics work synergistically to optimize gut health. Hench, meals or products that combine these together have a symbiotic effect.

 

Probiotics in Your Diet

To obtain more probiotics, enjoy an assortment of fermented dairy foods including yogurt, kefir, and aged cheeses, all of which contain live cultures. The active cultures in yogurt will not only help with digestion, but also help us better absorb nutrients from our food. The FDA requires at least two strains of bacteria in all yogurts, though manufacturers can add more. Kefir is a liquid yogurt that is cultured five to eight times longer than yogurt, giving good bacteria more time to multiply. It contains as many as 12 strains of bacteria and is delicious in smoothies and overnight oats.

Non-dairy sources of probiotics include miso, tempeh, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Miso is a savory, nutty paste made from fermented soybeans. It's extremely versatile and a lovely addition to soups, marinades, vegetables, and dressings, like this Miso Citrus Vinaigrette. If you're not familiar with tempeh (aka tofu's counterpart), it is comprised of fermented soybeans that are packed into cakes. Tempeh makes a great alternative to meat in sandwiches, stir-fries, and curries.
For a quick and easy dose of probiotics, add a serving of kimchi or sauerkraut to your favorite sandwich, soup, or Buddha bowl.

Bottom Line: Eating foods rich in probiotics can boost the healthy bacteria in your digestive tract, which can help you fend off indigestion and improve immunity. For individuals who either don't like probiotic-rich foods or don't get enough probiotics from foods, taking daily probiotic supplements may be beneficial. However, an overall healthy diet is still the key to maintaining optimal gut health.