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Beyond Yogurt: Benefits of Natural Probiotics

Probiotics seem to only be talked about in yogurt and similar dairy products. But for those of you who don’t particularly care for yogurt, it’s still important to include probiotics in your overall healthy diet.

Probiotics are live microorganisms, most often bacteria or sometimes yeasts, that when ingested provide some type of health benefit. The Probiotic Market has grown since Dannon released their Activia yogurt stateside in 2003. Probiotics are now available in pill, powder, and even gummy form, and claim to solve and prevent a wide variety of ailments.

Most research has shown improvements in treating mostly inflammatory diseases, infections of the digestive tract and benefiting our immune system using probiotics. While we wait for evidence for or against probiotic formulations, it’s important to remember how nutritionally beneficial cultured and fermented foods are to the diet (Vanderhoof, 2008).

With my educational background in microbiology, my days are spent wondering what all those good (and bad) bacteria are doing within our bodies. With the rise of vegan diets, we’ve seen non-dairy probiotic products moving into US markets through fermented foods from a worldwide variety of cultures.

For you science geeks out there, here’s a quick explanation. What makes these fermented foods effective probiotics is through the process of preservation where specific types of bacteria and yeasts take over and keep the food safe for consumption. Preservation occurs by dropping the pH of foods, giving it a sour flavor. This produces metabolites that we are able to make use of such as vitamins, peptides and even fatty acids (Parvez 2006). Since these microbes are already present in our foods, they are able to be successfully carried through our gastrointestinal tract to boost our gut health.

Even though yogurt, kefir, and other dairy-based products are a great source of beneficial microbes, here are some other (vegetable-based) probiotic foods that you might want to try. Let’s take a look at how we can get probiotics, naturally.

Sauerkraut is the first great option so long as it’s unpasteurized. This fermented cabbage dish from Eastern Europe and Germany will retain its lactic acid bacteria which are a similar culture to those used in yogurts. Plus it’s easy to make at home and is a great versatile topping!

Mostly known as a fermented spicy cabbage, this Korean side dish can actually be made with a variety of vegetables. Though typically made at home, one can usually find the cabbage variety in stores and pre-made.

Tempeh is a fermented soybean dish from Indonesia that’s gaining popularity in the US by being a meat substitute, due to its higher protein content and nutritional value. Make tempeh entree dishes for lunch and dinner, such as “buffalo wings” which is tempeh mixed with hot sauce.

Natto, perhaps not as well known in the US as miso, this fermented soybean product includes similar benefits with far less sodium than miso. There are even similar fermented bean recipes hailing from other parts Asia and Africa as well.

These are only a few examples of fermented foods found all across the world. I encourage you to seek them out, not only for their health benefits but to give other cuisines a try as well!

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Parvez, S., Malik, K.A., Ah Kang, S. and Kim, H.-Y. (2006), Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 100: 1171–1185.

Vanderhoof, J.A., & Young, R.. (2008). Probiotics in the United States. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 46: S67-S72.

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