Probiotics and Fermented Foods | Everything You Need to Know
Many people are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of gut health in our overall health and well-being. The gut is home to trillions of microorganisms that play critical roles in numerous body functions. Researchers are beginning to understand that the balance of this community of microorganisms is essential to our health.
One of the best ways to ensure a healthy balance of microorganisms in the gut is by including probiotics and probiotic fermented foods in your diet. This article will discuss the importance of gut bacteria for health and the differences between eating probiotic foods and probiotic supplements.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeast that are beneficial for your digestive system. Your body is home to trillions of microorganisms, most of which exist on your skin and gut. In the gut, this community of microorganisms is referred to as "the gut microbiome" or "gut microbiota."
These bacteria in our gut play many roles in our health. For example, they influence our digestion, immunity, mood, mental health, and much more. A healthy gut microbiome contains mostly beneficial gut bacteria, with a small number of bad bacteria. The ideal ratio is about 80-90% "good" bacteria and 10-20% "bad" bacteria.
When we have this ideal balance of bacteria in the gut, our digestive function is optimal, along with our immunity, mood, and all the other areas of our health influenced by our gut bacteria. In addition, the beneficial bacteria in our gut also help to protect us from harmful pathogens like parasites, Candida, and pathogenic bacteria.
When the good bacteria in our gut are reduced, the balance in the gut microbiome is disturbed, and pathogenic organisms can colonize our gut. This can impair digestive function, weaken our immunity, disturb our mood, and much more. A significant amount of our physical and mental health is determined by our gut health.
Unfortunately, many people have unhealthy guts with an inverse ratio of 80-90% "bad" bacteria and only 10-20% "good" bacteria. As a result, digestive disorders like IBS, Candida infections, Chron's disease, and ulcerative colitis are on the rise.
Good bacteria in the gut can be reduced through several factors, such as:
- Certain medications
- Poor diet
- Processed foods
- Excess sugar
- Artificial sweeteners
- Cigarette smoke
Gut health is complex and unique to each person. In general, however, most people can restore their gut health to normal by removing any pathogenic organisms, eating a gut-friendly diet, and including probiotic supplements or fermented probiotic foods.
Fermented Foods vs. Probiotic Supplements
When it comes to restoring the beneficial bacteria in your gut, the best way is by adding more probiotics to your diet. Probiotics can be consumed either as food or as supplements. The quality of both food and supplements can vary tremendously, and both have pros and cons.
Suppose we are comparing a high-quality multi-strain probiotic vs. fermented foods. In that case, the multi-strain probiotic will be more beneficial for restoring healthy gut bacteria. A high-quality multi-strain probiotic is beneficial because it will contain various strains of beneficial bacteria. In contrast, fermented foods will typically include just a few. Having multiple strains of bacteria helps to create a healthy diversity of microorganisms in the gut. High-quality probiotic supplements are also lab-tested to verify that the supplements contain specific strains of beneficial bacteria.
Fermented foods are subject to the fermentation environment that they are cultured in, which can differ significantly. Also, the number of microorganisms in commercially-available fermented foods is usually undetermined. It is often much lower than the number of probiotic supplements. A probiotic supplement will state how many colony-forming units (CFU) are in the supplement. CFU is a term in microbiology that refers to several live and active microorganisms.
A good probiotic supplement will have anywhere from 20 to 100 billion CFUs. In contrast, the number of CFUs in fermented foods is difficult to determine. Furthermore, one needs to consume high amounts of fermented foods to match the doses in probiotic supplements.
Probiotic supplements are targeted therapeutic supplements that recolonize the gut with multiple strains of beneficial bacteria. However, fermented foods still have many benefits. First, they are a gentle and easy way to add some beneficial bacteria to your gut microbiome. There is also the benefit of them being truly alive in an active fermentation process. Finally, our bodies are much more adapted to food than supplements, so they may be more easily digested than some probiotic supplements.
Good probiotic supplements will have an enteric coating that helps the probiotics make it through the digestive tract's harsh and acidic environment to the small and large intestines. Unfortunately, not all probiotic supplements have this coating and are less likely to provide the same benefits.
Reintroducing probiotics through supplements and food can be beneficial if you seek to improve your gut health. But, of course, everyone's situation is unique, and the best way to know how to restore your gut is through working with a practitioner.
Fermented Probiotic Foods List
Some of the best-fermented foods to eat for their probiotic benefits include:
Kimchi is an excellent food source of probiotics. It is a traditional Korean dish that can vary in its ingredients but usually includes a combination of vegetables, chili peppers, ginger, garlic, salt, and fish sauce. These ingredients are mixed, placed in a jar, then pickled and fermented. This process was created to preserve vegetables during the cold winter months. Still, it has many benefits for gut health due to its high probiotic content. Cabbage is usually the main vegetable in kimchi, but many other vegetables can also be used. There are hundreds of ways to make kimchi, and all of them contain probiotics.
Sauerkraut is made of finely cut raw cabbage that is fermented over a period of months. Therefore, it has a very long shelf life and a unique sour flavor. It is a national dish of Germany and, like kimchi, was initially created as a way to preserve food during the cold winter months. Also, similar to kimchi, sauerkraut is rich in beneficial probiotics. Plus, both sauerkraut and kimchi are easy to add as toppings to various meals. This makes them some of the most accessible probiotic foods to incorporate into your diet.
Miso is a fermented food that originated in Japan. It is a fermented paste made by inoculating a mixture of soybeans with a mold called koji (Aspergillus oryzae). Koji is usually cultivated from rice or soybeans but can also be cultivated from other ingredients like barley or chickpeas. Over a period as short as a few weeks and as long as several years, the enzymes in the koji interact with microorganisms to break down the structure of the beans and grains into a paste of amino acids, fatty acids, and simple sugars. It is very delicious food that can be consumed in several ways. Be mindful, however, as miso tends to have a relatively high salt content.
Yogurt is a classic fermented food rich in beneficial probiotics. The bacterial fermentation of milk produces yogurt. In addition, the fermentation of sugars in milk by certain bacteria produces lactic acid, which acts on milk protein to give yogurt its distinct texture and flavor. While yogurt is initially made from milk, it can also be made with other foods. Coconut yogurt, cashew yogurt, almond yogurt, and oat yogurt are common dairy-free yogurt alternatives.
Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans. Tempeh is caused by a fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form by combining soybeans with a specific type of fungus—usually Rhizopus oligosporus or Rhizopus oryzae. Tempeh is a delicious food packed with probiotics and often used as a replacement for meat.
Many people are familiar with kombucha. This delicious beverage has grown in popularity recently, with many kombucha beverages now available at most grocery stores. Kombucha is a fermented tea drink introducing a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) into brewed black or green tea and sugar. The drink is then allowed to ferment for a week to a month, eventually producing a fizzy drink loaded with live probiotics.
Kefir is another probiotic-rich beverage. It is a fermented milk drink that is similar to thin yogurt. It is created through the symbiotic fermentation of milk by bacteria and yeasts contained in bacteria-rich food called a kefir grain. Similar to how yogurt can be made with other foods besides milk, kefir can also be made in various ways. For example, coconut is a common food used to make dairy-free kefir.
Are All Fermented Foods Probiotics?
Not all fermented foods contain probiotics. Many of them do, but some fermented foods are processed in a way that removes the probiotics, such as with beer or wine. Things like baking and canning can also make fermented foods inactive.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that have many benefits for gut health. Our gut is home to many bacteria; ideally, we have a ratio of bacteria in the gut that consists primarily of beneficial bacteria. For many people, however, harmful bacteria have taken over their gut. As a result, many people suffer from gut health issues.
Probiotics may help to restore gut health to normal. Probiotics can be found in either foods or supplements. While both have benefits, high-quality probiotics offer the most benefits for repairing gut health.