You have probably heard of the terms probiotics and prebiotics but do you know what they really mean, where to find them and what role they play in keeping you healthy?
Gut bacteria, or more specifically gut microbes, are tiny microorganisms that live in your gut. They’re alive and play important roles right throughout the body. There’s still so much we have to learn about our gut microbiome, but what we do we know when it comes to keeping it happy is that what we eat has a big influence. With a diet rich in plant foods shown to promote the most favourable changes to our microbiome.
Now we know that plants as a whole are beneficial for the microbiome, nutrition research has got more specific and has started pinpointing specific components of foods that can improve the health of our microbiome, which is where prebiotics and probiotics come in.
Probiotics and prebiotics sound similar, but they are very different. Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria, whereas prebiotics fuel for the beneficial bacteria – they are what the good bacteria in our gut like to feast off. Consuming both pre and probiotic-rich foods regularly helps to support a healthy and diverse microbiome, which we know is essential for optimal health and wellbeing. It’s important to note that there is limited evidence surrounding the amount of probiotics present in foods, since unlike supplements, this can vary widely depending on factors like processing and storage. However, there’s no harm in adding the probiotic-rich foods below to your diet.
Kefir is a fermented drink made by adding kefir grains to milk. Kefir grains aren’t those you’d find in a bowl of cereal but “grain-like” colonies of a combination of yeast and bacteria. This combination, stored in a warm spot to ferment, produces billions of live cultures and more than 20 different strains of probiotics. Kefir has a similar consistency to thin yoghurt and it has a tart, tangy flavour. There are many different types of kefir including dairy-free and vegan kefir options such as coconut kefir, kefir yoghurt and goat milk kefir. Read more on the health benefits of kefir here.
Sauerkraut is a combination of finely shredded cabbage and salt, which has been fermented by various lactic acid bacteria like Leuconostoc spp., Lactobacillus spp., and Pediococcus spp. If you’ve never tried sauerkraut before, it can take some getting used to. Plain sauerkraut tastes slightly sour, sweet, spicy and salty with a touch of fermented funkiness.
Yoghurt is a fermented dairy product, created through the fermentation of milk by two species of bacterial cultures, Streptococcus thermophilus (S. thermophilus) and Lactobacillus bulgaricus (L. bulgaricus). In addition to these ‘starter cultures’, some yoghurts also contain added probiotics with the most common species being Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Kimchi is a well known fermented food and Korean specialty made with cabbage, garlic, ginger, onion, chilli and fish sauce. The lacto-fermentation process results in a product rich in probiotics.
Kombucha has been around for thousands of years but its popularity has exploded of late. It’s made by adding specific strains of bacteria, yeast and sugar to tea and allowing it to ferment. Although there’s no research backing the probiotic benefits of kombucha, it does contain different species of lactic acid bacteria that may have a probiotic function.
Probiotics can also come in supplement form and plenty of research is showing great potential for the use of certain strains of probiotics in certain diseases and conditions. However, unlike most smart marketing campaigns and ad’s would like you to believe, it isn’t a case of taking any old probiotic! To achieve a beneficial outcome you need to be taking the specific strain or combination of strains that have been indicated for your particular condition. So while probiotics can be very beneficial when taken under the guidance of a nutrition professional, for the most of us, there’s no need and you are better off sticking to the food sources of probiotics.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are substances that come from certain foods (mainly types of fibre) that humans can’t digest. While many people would assume something we can’t digest is a bad thing, in the case of prebiotics, it is actually extremely beneficial. By resisting digestion higher up in our digestive system, they make it all the way down to our large intestine where they act as fuel for our gut bacteria. Think of prebiotics as being the soil the probiotics (flowers) need to flourish. Pre-biotic-rich foods include:
- Green bananas
So now you know which foods contain pre and probiotics, but you might be wondering how to include them in your diet… Here are our favourite ways to boost your intake.
- Choose a high-quality, plain yogurt with live cultures
- Add kefir to smoothies
- Use green banana flour in baking
- Add kimchi to your rice or noodle bowls
- Make dressings and sauces with miso
- Have sauerkraut with your salads
- Opt for a small glass of kombucha over soft drink
- Add leeks to your roast vegetable meal prep
- Make stewed apples to add to porridge, yoghurt bowls or chia pudding
- Use onions as the base of any sauce or stew-based dishes, such as bolognese mix, soups and casseroles
Should everyone be eating prebiotic and probiotic foods?
While the prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods are fantastic foods to be included in our diets to support our gut health and overall wellbeing, for some people they can cause irritation and gut symptoms. This is because many of the prebiotic and probiotic foods are high in FODMAPs, which aren’t always well tolerated by people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and may trigger symptoms such as gas and bloating. If you have tried including some prebiotic or probiotic foods in your diet and are noticing some unpleasant symptoms, speak to your doctor and check out The FODMAP Challenge to determine the foods that trigger your IBS symptoms.