The top item on my grocery list is always yogurt: unsweetened, organic, made with almond milk. I’m always afraid I’ll run out since I use it all the time. I put two tablespoons in every smoothie, switch it out for mayo, and nothing beats a cool cup on a hot day as an afternoon snack.
Besides healthy doses of calcium and protein, yogurt is a prime source for probiotics, the "good" live bacteria and yeasts. Why are these helpful? Having a proper balance of bacteria in your gut improves digestion, blocks dangerous organisms that can cause infections, and boosts your immune system. It also helps your body absorb vital nutrients from food.
What to know about probiotics
Unlike vitamins, there is no recommended daily intake for probiotics, so there is no way to know which type of bacteria or quantities are best. The general guideline is to add some foods with probiotics to your daily diet.
Hundreds of ingestible bacteria are classified as probiotics. The two found in most probiotic foods are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, each of which contains various strains. On food labels, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are often abbreviated as L. or B. and then combined with name of a specific strain. So, the strain acidophilus within the Lactobacillus bacteria is written as L. acidophilus.
Probiotics in yogurt
This brings us back to yogurt, which often contains L. acidophilus.
Yogurt is a popular probiotic food because it's widely available, and there are different ways to consume it. Some brands include a Live & Active Cultures (LAC) seal from the International Dairy Foods Association to verify probiotic content. Otherwise, look for the words "live and active cultures" on the label. (Also, many fruit or sweetened varieties have too much sugar, so check labels for that, too.)
Looking beyond yogurt for probiotics
What if you are not a yogurt enthusiast, or simply want more options? Luckily, many other foods also serve up a good dose of good bacteria. They come in various flavors and textures, so odds are you will find a few to your liking.
Kefir. This yogurtlike drink has a tart flavor, with a thinner consistency than yogurt. The beverage is usually made with dairy milk, but also comes in non-dairy alternatives, like coconut water, coconut milk, and rice milk. Kefir also comes in fruit and vegetable flavors, or you can add flavors yourself like cinnamon, vanilla, and pumpkin spice. It is also an excellent base for smoothies.
Kimchi. Kimchi is a spicy, reddish fermented cabbage dish made with a mix of garlic, salt, vinegar, and chili peppers. It’s often served alone or mixed with rice or noodles. You can also add it to scrambled eggs or on top of potatoes. You can find it at most grocery stores or Asian markets.
Kombucha. This fermented tea drink has a tangy-tart flavor. Kombucha contains caffeine comparable to some other tea drinks. Some brands have added sugar, so check the label and avoid anything with more than 5 grams of sugar per serving.
Miso. A popular paste in Japanese cuisine, miso is made from soybeans fermented with brown rice. It has a strong, salty flavor, and a little goes a long way. Use it as a dipping sauce, spread over your toast, or add it to marinades for fish, meats, and vegetables.
Pickles. Not every type of pickle will do. Look for brands brined in water and sea salt instead of vinegar.
Sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is pickled cabbage and may be an acquired taste. (I am a fan thanks to my German-born grandmother, who made me Reuben sandwiches as a kid.) Use it as a hot dog topper, mix it into salads, or combine it with your regular side vegetables. Always choose raw or non-pasteurized sauerkraut. It contains more probiotics than commercial sauerkraut, which loses much of its bacteria from pasteurization.Tempeh.
Tempeh is a cake made from fermented soybeans, with a firmer texture than tofu. It is a popular meat substitute — try it as a veggie burger patty, or add to pasta sauce. Tempeh often comes precooked and ready to eat, but some brands may need cooking.