What Foods Contain Probiotics?

You may have seen the word "probiotics" trumpeted on the packages of various products on supermarket shelves. Obviously manufacturers want you to believe their foods are good for you, and in fact probiotics do have numerous health benefits. But sorting through what's fact and what are merely inflated claims can be confusing.

It helps to understand what probiotics are. Simply put, probiotics are live microorganisms that are beneficial to humans when ingested. In our modern, sterile environment, humans consume many fewer microbes than our ancestors did. But these microbes are vital to protecting our immune system and keeping us hale and hearty. Manufacturers have filled this niche by fortifying their products with probiotics. Created by different strains of bacteria, probiotics are reputed to lessen antibiotic side effects, reduce symptoms of mild to moderate irritable bowel syndrome, prevent traveler's diarrhea, ward off colds, and clear up vaginal infections, among other things.

But while corporations are eager to slap the "probiotics" label on their products, customers should take manufacturers' claims with a grain of salt. Labeling claims may be inflated or misleading, according to Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, a consultant to the probiotic food and dietary-supplement industries. "Currently, there is no third-party objective rating system for product claims on probiotic products," she says. "And not all probiotics are the same." What is proven in clinical studies may not always translate to what exists on supermarket shelves.

Still, it's worth trying to get probiotics into your diet. One of the most popular ways to do this is by eating yogurt that contains probiotics. An ever-growing roster of probiotic yogurt brands can be found in supermarkets, alongside a similar fermented dairy product called kefir, which is more liquid. Another good source of probiotics is aged cheese. (Avoid processed or spreadable cheeses.)

Had enough of dairy? You can get a good helping of probiotics by eating kimchi, a traditional Korean dish. Kimchi is made of cabbage that's liberally spiced with garlic, radishes, red pepper, onion, and other flavorings and then fermented (salted and put into a closed jar) for several days. Sour dill pickles straight from the barrel are said to contain probiotics as well, but be wary of naturally fermented foods that undergo processing after fermentation, such as jarred pickles and sauerkraut and the like. It's likely that any healthful microbes that might have existed are wiped out by the time they reach the supermarket.




Mary Ellen Sanders, Ph.D., Centennial, CO; Korea Food Research Institute