Probiotic Foods to Add to Your Diet

These foods contain naturally occurring bacteria that may help improve multiple aspects of health, from digestion to disease prevention 

You may have heard that foods with probiotics—living bacteria that naturally occur in food products—offer a wide array of health benefits. Research suggests that some probiotics can aid digestion, help boost immunity, and reduce allergy symptoms. But how can you add these beneficial bacteria to your diet? A few foods pack a particular probiotic punch, according to experts at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and may be worth adding to your grocery list. 


A bowl of yogurt at breakfast is one way to ensure you’re getting the benefits of probiotics. Yogurt is made through a fermentation process where bacteria convert sugars in milk to lactic acid, which thickens the milk and gives it a tangy flavor. Sometimes, other bacteria are added, too. 

Those bacteria are still present in most yogurt products on grocery shelves. Sometimes, food processing can kill the bacteria, so be sure to choose brands that contain live bacteria, called “active cultures.” 


Next time you get a pickle with your meal, think of its probiotic benefits. Pickles are made when a cucumber ferments in salty water. The naturally occurring bacteria present in the cucumber work similarly to bacteria in yogurt—by consuming the sugars in the cucumber and producing lactic acid, which adds tartness. 

Pickles made with vinegar, though, aren’t fermented and don’t have probiotic benefits, since the vinegar kills any bacteria. To find fermented pickles, look in the refrigerated section of your grocery store, and check the labels to ensure the pickles aren’t made using vinegar.

 Yogurt in a bowl with berries

Not all yogurts that claim to be rich in probiotics are. The pasteurization process, for example, may kill the organisms. Look for products that have added live bacteria post pasteurization. Photo: Shutterstock

Some Cheeses

While you’re in the pickle section, glance over the cheeses, too, as some cheeses are high in probiotics. As you would for yogurt, look for cheeses with labels that indicate “live” or “active cultures.” These tend to be cheeses that haven’t been heated enough to kill the bacteria present in them, such as cheddar, Gouda, Swiss, provolone, and cottage cheese. 

While the bacteria present in cheese may aid digestion, cheese is also high in protein and important vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin A.


Another probiotic vegetable worth trying is sauerkraut, a type of fermented cabbage especially popular in Germany. It’s made with a simple mix of cabbage and salt, and undergoes a similar process to pickles—bacteria present in the cabbage ferment it and add flavor.


Kimchi, a fermented Korean dish, is also made with cabbage and seasonings. Like sauerkraut, it’s high in beneficial bacteria.

Kimchi also contains plenty of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, particularly vitamins A and C. Though it’s common to eat kimchi sautéed with rice and scrambled eggs, it can also be eaten alone or added to virtually any dish. You can make your own with just a few ingredients. Nutrition experts recommend eating kimchi and sauerkraut in moderation, though, as they can be high in salt. 


Consider adding a scoop of miso to your sautéed kimchi, too. Miso is a paste-like Japanese condiment made from fermented soybeans. The fermentation process is helped along by bacteria and a fungus called koji mold or Aspegillus oryzae. Koji mold is also an ingredient in other fermented rice dishes common in Japanese cuisine that are high in beneficial bacteria. 

In addition to its probiotic benefits, some research suggests eating miso regularly may lower the risk of certain cancers. However, miso, like kimchi and sauerkraut, is high in salt and should be eaten in moderation.


Another fermented soybean dish to eat for its probiotic benefits is tempeh. Instead of a paste, tempeh takes the form of a patty. It’s high in protein, has a nutty taste, and is commonly used as a meat substitute. 

Tempeh’s fermentation process adds vitamin B12, which aids in nerve function and red blood cell formation. Many vegetarians and vegans struggle to get enough vitamin B12, making tempeh a particularly smart substitute for meat. 

A person pours kombucha into two glasses

Kombucha is a fermented tea with sugar, yeast, and bacteria mixed in. Photo: Shutterstock


If you’d like to drink your probiotics, try kombucha: a fermented tea with sugar, yeast, and bacteria mixed in. As a result of the fermentation process, kombucha is carbonated and contains a small amount of alcohol. Research on kombucha’s health benefits is still limited, but some studies show it offers benefits similar to other probiotic foods. 

Honorable Mention: Sourdough

You may have heard that sourdough is a gut-healthy food since sourdough starters are made from fermented dough. But sourdough bread loses its microbes during processing, meaning it’s not high in probiotics. However, it is a better form of bread for your gut—the fermentation process reduces the gluten content and makes sourdough easier to digest than other breads.

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