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13 Surprising and Beneficial Probiotic Foods

author image Jen Jones Donatelli
Jen Jones Donatelli is a writer whose work has appeared in "Variety," E!Online, and many other print and online publications. Currently based in Los Angeles, she has a Bachelor's of Science degree in Magazine Journalism from Ohio University. Jones is also the author of the "Cool Crafts" book series for Capstone Press.

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13 Surprising and Beneficial Probiotic Foods
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Probiotics are the latest health obsession thanks to their seemingly endless list of health benefits. But the hype may be warranted; these friendly bacteria are the real deal. Various probiotic strains have been shown to support the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, prevent inflammation, boost immunity and alleviate conditions ranging from allergies to diarrhea, although more research needs to be done to sort out specific strains, outcomes and dosages. “Conventionally, when people hear about probiotics, they typically think of yogurt or supplements,” says Dr. B.J. Hardick, founder of the Centre for Maximized Living in London, Ontario. “Most people are unfortunately unaware of several other incredible -- and typically better -- sources of healthy gut bacteria.” Among those sources is a wide array of cultured and fermented foods. On the next slides, we’ll describe the benefits of 13 probiotic foods – some may surprise you!

1. Green Peas
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1 Green Peas

Green peas are one of the newer probiotic discoveries to come to light. In December 2013, Japanese researchers published a preliminary study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology revealing that green peas contain Leuconostoc mesenteroides, a strain of probiotic bacteria with high IgA-inducing ability in animals. What does that mean? The good bacteria inside green peas may raise the level of IgA antibodies in your immune system. These types of antibodies are often found in the lining of your airway and digestive tracts and can help “enhance mucosal barrier function,” according to the study. Translation: green peas may be able to help fight off infections and colds thanks to their inherent probiotic bacteria. Tip: Heat can be detrimental to probiotics so add raw peas to your salad or eat as a snack.

Read more: Green Peas for Weight Loss

2. Dark Chocolate
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2 Dark Chocolate

Chocolate lovers take heed: The dark variety could be your new probiotic best friend. Using low processing temperatures to keep them intact, manufacturers are able to add probiotics to dark chocolate at up to four times the amount found in other forms of dairy. The resulting chocolate is rich in both quantity and quality of probiotics. A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology found that probiotics in dark chocolate survived the passage through the stomach and small intestine better than those added to liquid milk (91 to 80 percent versus 20 to 31 percent). The verdict? Sold. Who doesn’t need another reason to love chocolate?

Read more: The Best and Worst Things to Say to Someone Who's Grieving

3. Natto
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3 Natto

Wondering how to start your day the right probiotic way? Consider natto, a traditional Japanese breakfast food often served with rice. Made from soybeans fermented with probiotic Bacillus subtilis natto, this superfood is an excellent source of good bacteria. It's also “rich in the protein and vitamin K necessary for strong bones,” says Lori Shemek, Ph.D., certified nutritional consultant. A preliminary 2009 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed promising results that the enzyme nattokinase (produced during the fermentation process) may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. However, you might want to prepare your taste buds, cautions Shemek, as “[natto] has a strong flavor and therefore has an acquired taste” -- not to mention an extremely pungent smell.

Read more: Natto and Other Foods with Vitamin K

4. Kefir
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4 Kefir

Thanks to its high levels of lactobacilli and bifidus bacteria, kefir may help alleviate digestive troubles by reducing the growth of “bad” bacteria and aiding in digestion. The result? A healthier gut. Kefir also helps support your immune system and is a good source of protein as well as calcium and potassium, two nutrients Americans are lacking in their diet. Though widely consumed as a fermented milk drink, you can also find products with kefir used in ice cream, cheese, popsicles, oatmeal and even veggie-based drinks.

Read more: Which Type of Yogurt Is Best? The Pros & Cons of 13 Different Kinds

5. Miso
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5 Miso

Although typically sourced from soybeans, fermented rye, beans, brown rice, barley and most other grains and beans can be used to make miso. Commonly used in soups and marinades, miso contains probiotic bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidus. For a quick fix, "try adding a tablespoon of miso to some hot water, which makes a delicious and quick soup," Shemek advises. Other healthy hints: Choose Chinese over Japanese miso, as it is more likely to contain probiotics. Also, if you are watching your sodium intake, opt for a low-salt variety.

Read more: Miso Soup Nutritional Breakdown

6. Kombucha
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6 Kombucha

Thanks to the recent popularity of kombucha tea, many people think of kombucha as a drink, but it actually starts as a fungus flush with probiotics. Kombucha is currently experiencing a mass resurgence in popularity with widespread commercial distribution and sales projected to reach $500 million by 2015, but the Chinese have enjoyed this tonic for thousands of years. While the potential benefits of kombucha continue to be researched, most teas contain an ample amount of probiotics, which supports overall digestion and gut health.

Read more: The Top 10 Cleansing Foods

7. Umeboshi Plums
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7 Umeboshi Plums

Samurai warriors once used umeboshi pickled plums to stay strong during battle. This salty, sour treat, known for its supreme alkalizing ability and often served with rice, has become a common staple in bento boxes and conscious diets today. Although unsubstantiated, they’ve been hailed as an effective aid for digestion and detoxification and as a wonder hangover cure that combats fatigue, nausea and other symptoms. Umeboshi plums are typically fermented for 6 months (hence the powerful alkalinity). “Consume two to three per week for optimal results,” says Lidia Kuleshnyk, Apona Healing Arts founder and macrobiotic expert.

Read more: Health Benefits of Dried Plums

8. Yogurt
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8 Yogurt

For a long time, yogurt has been the go-to food of choice for those seeking probiotic benefits. “However, it’s not the end-all and be-all,” Hardick says. “While yogurt is a good start, it often contains only one or two strains of the many bacterial sources needed by the body for healthy gut flora.” That’s not to discount its benefits, however; a small UCLA study released in 2013 found that healthy women who ate probiotic-enriched yogurt twice daily for just four weeks experienced positive changes in brain function.

Read more: Is Greek Yogurt Really More Nutritious Than Regular Yogurt?

9. Sauerkraut
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9 Sauerkraut

Rich in vitamins, sauerkraut is raw, fermented cabbage. This tangy dish contains at least four different species of gut-friendly lactic acid bacteria, making it a trusted source of probiotics. A 2012 study published in the “Rwanda Journal of Health Sciences” found that this specific type of bacteria might help reduce risk of heart disease and some cancers although more research is needed. To ensure that your serving of sauerkraut packs its full probiotic punch, be sure to choose unpasteurized sauerkraut, as heat can kill the live bacteria.

Read more: 7 Surprising Benefits of Fermented Foods

10. Pickles
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10 Pickles

Looking for probiotics? Go green! Along with being a tasty snack, pickles can be a great source of probiotics when made using the fermentation method (rather than brining with vinegar). Like other naturally fermented vegetables, pickles may help improve intestinal tract health. The gut-friendly lactobacillus bacteria used in the fermentation process act as a probiotic, which help keep your gastrointestinal (GI) tract healthy and they also create B vitamins. One caveat? Salt is an important part of the “pickling” process, so if you’re following a low-salt diet you may want to avoid or limit your pickle intake.

Read more: The Benefits of Fermented Foods and 5 DIY Recipes

11. Cheese
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11 Cheese

Soft fermented cheeses like Parmesan, Gouda and Swiss can contain “good” bacteria that are able to navigate the GI tract without breaking down. Probiotic cheese may be an especially wise choice for the elderly, as a 2010 study by Finnish scientists found that daily consumption of one slice of probiotic Gouda for four weeks increased beneficial markers of immunity. Another study found that cheddar cheese containing probiotic strains of L. casei and L. acidophilus had ACE-inhibitory activity, which may help maintain healthy blood pressure levels.

Read more: Nutrition Comparison of Cheeses

12. Tempeh
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12 Tempeh

Vegetarians seeking a protein-packed meat substitute will find it in tempeh, a grain made from fermented soybeans that contains probiotics. “Tempeh is very low in salt, making it a good alternative to meat, and it’s high in fiber and protein,” says Lori Shemek. Its fermentation process may help the body to better absorb minerals like iron and calcium. Tempeh is also easy to digest, since enzymes produced during the fermentation process predigest many of the basic nutrients.

Read more: Tempeh and Other Iron-Rich Foods

13. Kimchi
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13 Kimchi

A relative of sauerkraut, kimchi is nutrient-dense and includes compounds that offer a rainbow of wellness perks, including boosting the immune system. “This Asian preparation of cabbage typically also contains spices like ginger and garlic, as well as additional vegetables like radishes and scallions -- all of which provide additional health benefits,” Hardick says. But this spicy condiment is best known for its probiotic powers. Its high concentration of lactic acid bacteria is so potent that Koreans who travel overseas without eating kimchi often report digestive upset, according to a 2011 academic article in Microbial Cell Factories.

Read more: PRINTABLE: 5 Easy Fermented Food DIY Recipes

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If probiotics don’t have an environment where they can thrive, they can’t do as much good -- and that’s where prebiotics come in. Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers that help good bacteria flourish inside your intestines. Found in foods like legumes, oatmeal, onions and artichokes, prebiotics help strike the right digestive balance inside your body. And according to Dr. B.J. Hardick, consuming the proper foods should give you a healthy dose of both: “When consuming cultured foods as part of a balanced diet, you’re going to consume a great variety of probiotics, and eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains will offer the necessary prebiotics needed for probiotic metabolism,” Hardick says. "Both are necessary for healthy GI function."

Read more: The Best Prebiotics to Eat

What Do YOU Think?
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What Do YOU Think?

Now that you’ve read all about how to restore your intestinal flora and fauna with these 13 different probiotic foods, we want to hear your take on the subject. Which of these foods do you enjoy and will incorporate into your diet? Do you currently take probiotic supplements? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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