Fermented foods have been around forever since the fermenting process works as a natural way to extend shelf life, giving foods unique flavors plus storied health benefits from cultures around the world. Cultured foods now have a serious following in culinary and health circles, while research is ongoing to help identify any potential health benefits of fermented foods. The nutrition buzz is all about probiotics, those beneficial live bacteria or live cultures that comprise the group of organisms that may give your health a little boost. The good-for-you bacteria are found in cultured, fermented, and soured foods, whether homemade or store-bought.And there are at least as many bacteria that make up the probiotic family of organisms as there are foods and supplements sold to provide them. Research is trying to determine what specific bacteria (or bacterium) help, what amount is needed for benefits, as well as the form (be it a live culture or a powder, for instance) to recommend. The most promising benefit of probiotics so far seems to be for your gut health, but a lot more digging has to be done to discover if probiotics may help a host of other conditions.
Until we know more, here’s what to look for on your store-bought fermented foods:
A label that states the food “contains live, active cultures” and lists them: Bifidobacterum, Lactobacillus, Lactococcus and Leuconostoc are some of the strains to look for. There are dozens more of these probiotic strains so there could be a list of bacteria strains on a food label. (And indeed, many food companies include multiple strains of live cultures in one product.)
Even better if the label includes information on how much of the strain is in a serving and information on or links to scientific research supporting the use of the probiotics.
And with the popularity of these potentially good-for-you bacteria, probiotics can be found from the dairy case to the snack aisle. Choose foods with other good-for-you nutrients (which may also support health). For example, kefir or yogurt will also contain filling protein and bone-strengthening calcium in addition to the probiotics; plus, the yogurt or kefir can be used in smoothies, dips, dressings, as a topping or a satisfying snack. New to kerfir? Check out this video.
Some dairy products can contain a lot of added sweeteners, so look for plain-flavored options or ones with minimal added sugar. Another way to drink your probiotics is through kombucha, the fermented tea that can include yeast, sugar, and other compounds, such as antioxidants or vitamins. A colleague likes his tart drink as an afternoon pick-me-up (instead of that cuppa caffeine). Like the yogurt, make sure to find one that has minimal added sugar.
A benefit to consuming your probiotics as food (instead of pills) is that you can use them to great effect in your cooking. For instance, foods like kimchi can be spicy-hot and still contain probiotics, too. Kimchi, a condiment or side dish with one or several fermented vegetables including cabbage, cucumbers, or radishes is great on burgers or rice bowls with eggs. If kimchi is too fiery, try its European cousin sauerkraut, also a fermented cabbage, with more zing than spice. Sauerkraut is the perfect foil for a grilled cheese sandwich, atop pork chops, or as a slaw with some shredded carrot. Both options are loaded with flavor and often sodium, so a little goes a long way.
And potential health benefits aside, eating your probiotics opens up a realm of new ingredients to work with. Miso, the fermented soybean paste, can be used to make a virtuous soup, blended into a sauce or salad dressing, or stirred into clam chowder or marinades. This paste is high in sodium and flavor, so experiment with small amounts. Another food with probiotics is tempeh, the Southeast Asian cultured soybean block. This rich-flavored and textured protein powerhouse is great in salads, sandwiches or grilled as a steak.
Do you have a favorite food with probiotics? What is it and how do you use it?