What do kefir, kombucha, and kimchi have in common (besides starting with the letter K)? They are all naturally probiotic fermented foods that provide healthy bacteria to our digestive systems to support digestive health.
Fermentation is a controlled anaerobic process (meaning without oxygen) whereby certain bacteria and yeast break down carbohydrates and sugars into their component organic acids or alcohol through enzymatic action. The results are typically a little tangy, a little savory, and sometimes a little fizzy… and often delicious! If properly prepared and stored, fermented foods typically have a long shelf-life.
However, not all fermented foods are alike. In some cases, the live cultures used to produce the product are removed before the product is consumed. Let’s take a look at these first before diving into the healthy probiotic-containing delicacies.
A few examples of fermented foods that are NOT probiotic include:
- Commercial wine and beer. (Commercially produced wine and beers are filtered before bottling to remove any remaining bacteria and sediment).
- Did you know that chocolate was a fermented food(?) The processing of cocoa beans into chocolate requires fermentation to develop and bring out the flavors that we know and love before the chocolate goes through a series of additional steps that turn it into the chocolate we know and love. Chocolate contains flavanols that act as prebiotics to nurture our healthy gut bacteria, but does not contain any live probiotic organisms.
- Canned sauerkraut. The heat-treatment/pasteurization step during the canning process effectively kills off any healthy bacteria. Similarly, cooking sauerkraut at home also kills any healthy bugs.
For a food to be considered probiotic, it must meet the FAO/WHO definition, “Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” The most common probiotic bacteria include those in the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium groups, and yeasts. These microorganisms are the same as or similar to the helpful bugs that naturally reside in our guts. Probiotic bacteria have a variety of functions including breaking down food, producing vitamins, and crowding out harmful bacteria trying to take up residence in the gut.
Some top fermented foods that are also probiotic include:
- Yogurt is one of the best-known probiotic foods, but all yogurts are not created equal. Some have been processed in a way that kills some or all of the live bacteria. Others contain strains that have not been shown to “confer a healthy benefit” to the host. Some things to look for on labels include “Live and active cultures,” and the specific strains.
Dairy-free plant-based “milks” and yogurts can also contain probiotic bacteria, but the specific strains and amounts vary widely between brands. In some cases, due to the variety of different sugars found in nuts and seeds, a variety of different probiotic bacteria types are used to ferment the yogurt, leading to a greater variety of probiotic strains in the finished product. Doing online research and reading labels can help you to find the brand that best meets your probiotic needs.
Another option is to make your own dairy-free yogurt. We like this easy recipe from “My Quiet Kitchen” for cashew yogurt (be sure to use organic/biodynamic ingredients and unsalted cashews). For the probiotic capsules to use in the fermentation step, choose PERQUE Digesta Guard Forté 10™, a probiotic supplement that contains 10 beneficial bacteria in health-promoting quantities.
- While similar to yogurt in that it is made by fermenting milk with beneficial microorganisms, kefir uses “kefir grains” rather than bacterial cultures to promote fermentation. Kefir grains are a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeasts that create a cauliflower-looking “grain” structure. When added to milk and stored overnight in the dark, kefir is formed. The grains can then be removed to use in another batch. Kefir typically contains a greater variety of probiotic organisms than yogurt.
Another interesting option, called “tibicos” or “water kefir,” is a type of kefir grain that specifically ferments sugary water or fruit juice rather than a dairy milk. It allows a true non-dairy kefir to be produced, yet still has a strong probiotic profile. There is an instructional video online for making water kefir, and the finished product can then be used to make coconut milk kefir or other non-dairy milk kefirs!
- Kombucha is a fizzy fermented probiotic drink made from tea. It has become popular recently but has been around for nearly 2,000 years. To create kombucha, a culture of bacteria and yeast is added to a sugary black tea mixture and left to ferment for 7 to 30 days. Variants have been produced with green tea, as well, to provide additional health benefits.
- Sauerkraut is created when cabbage is submerged in a salt brine, allowing the natural bacteria in the food to break down the carbohydrates and fibers to more digestible and nutritionally rich compounds. Adding heat, vinegar, or sugar during processing, however, will either kill or inhibit the growth of the probiotic bugs. There are probiotic-rich sauerkrauts available in the refrigerated section, however, and they can be identified by words such as “contains live, active cultures,” “raw,” and “probiotic” on the labels. A few organic options we have found include Hamptons Brine, Pickled Planet, Real Pickles, and Wild Brine. You can also make your own sauerkraut at home. Whole-istic Living has a nice basic recipe; be sure to use all organic/biodynamic ingredients.
- Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish or condiment made with salted and fermented vegetables (often including napa cabbage) and a variety of seasonings. The NIH has recognized kimchi as a vegetable probiotic food that confers health benefits to consumers. Check out our sugar-free kimchi recipe
Adding probiotic foods to your diet can contribute to your overall health and wellbeing. Which of these foods will you try first?
Supplements to Support Digestive Health
We’ve talked at length today about fermented and probiotic foods. For optimum digestive health, it’s also recommended to get enough prebiotic fibers (to feed the probiotic organisms), symbiotics (to maintain intestinal barrier function, support the gut microbiome, and reduce intestinal inflammation), and digestion promoters (to optimize saliva and gastric juice production). We don’t often get all of the prebiotics, probiotics, symbiotics and digestive health promoters that we need from diet alone, so supplementation can provide additional support to optimize gut function, and the PERQUE Digestive Quintet covers all of the bases.
PERQUE DigestivAide™ Herbal Bitters can boost saliva production and kick-start the digestive process for starches and fats.* These herbs also stimulate the release of gastric juices, hormones, and enzymes, facilitating effective food breakdown.
PERQUE L-Histidine Guard™ is a good source of stomach acid protons to further support stomach acid production and antioxidant benefit.*
PERQUE Digesta Guard Forté 10™ is our probiotic supplement with 10 beneficial probiotic strains to benefit digestion and help ward off harmful bacteria.*
For a prebiotic supplement, PERQUE Regularity Guard™ contains a unique combination of unprocessed fibers and synergistic ingredients to help nurture the healthy digestion-promoting bugs in the digestive system.*
PERQUE Endura/PAK Guard™ contains a unique combination of L-glutamine and pyridoxal alpha-ketoglutarate (PAK). PAK naturally recycles L-glutamine, so the body can use it over and over again to support digestive system health.*