Probiotics can be easily classified into two types: natural fermented foods and probiotic supplements. In this article we are going to go through the list of fermented foods, which are considered to be the most useful by many health professionals and enthusiasts of healthy lifestyle. We are going to look at the natural traditional foods people have been consuming throughout centuries in different cultures and the ones which are fortunately accessible to people today in order to stay healthy.
Many of these foods are staples in different countries and have contributed to large groups of people sustaining their health when other resources were unavailable. For example sauerkraut has helped people from northern Europe survive through long cold winters when fresh fruit and veggies were not possible to get. This product gave them the much needed vitamins in order to boost their immunity.
Today we are going to look at the following fermented probiotic products one by one:
- Ryazhenka, Ayran, Kumis
- Traditional buttermilk
- Some types of cheese
- Other pickles without vinegar
- Salt-water probiotic olives
- Kombucha or tea mushroom
We can classify this list of foods into two categories: dairy-based and plant-based foods, catering to individual dietary preferances. Let us see what these two groups can offer us.
Dairy-based fermented foods:
This is probably the most popular probiotic food you can find in almost any grocery store. It is made from pasteurized cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk, adding two types of probiotic bacteria strains: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus.
Because it is a fermented product, it aids the digestion process and is also better tolerated than regular milk-based products due to its reduced milk protein count. The vitamin B quantities in this product are impressive, as well as other essential vitamins, macro- and micro nutrients necessary for the human health.
The classic yoghurt (or greek yoghurt) originated in ancient Bulgaria, as you can tell by the name of the bacteria involved in its production. It is no wonder that even today Bulgaria has one of the longest human lifespans in the world. The consumption of real yoghurt in this country, as well as of greek yoghurt in neighbouring Greece is very common, making these nations really healthy.
It is very important to buy the right type of yoghurt for it to have probiotic qualities. Some yoghurts are heat-treated (or pasteurized) which typically kills all of the probiotic qualities, leaving only the taste characteristics. Also yoghurts with added sugar should be avoided, because it can do more harm and help grow bad bacteria in the gut. This is a very important additive to watch out for since many products on our supermarket shelves today have added sugar to ‘brighten’ the real taste of the actual yoghurt.
Apart from looking for yoghurts which are without sugar and are not pasteurized, it is also a good idea to pay attention to labels stating ‘live active cultures’. This allows us to be sure that the good bacteria in yoghurts are alive and ready to do their job in terms of improving our health.
Kefir is a cultured probiotic food with origins in Northern Caucasus mountains, modern day Russia. It is a very ancient product, with the unique milk yeast and lactic symbiotic culture taking its roots in times of ancient horse breeding when the ferment was first added to cow’s milk, instead of horse’s. That was well over 3000 years ago. The health benefits of kefir were first widely spoken about in the Russian Empire when this probiotic culture was first transferred from Kislovodsk in Caucasus to Moscow in order to establish production across the entire Russia.
This beverage is known to have a multitude of healthy vitamins especially the B group, as well as D, C, A and minerals. Kefir is known to purify blood and strengthen the immunity system, through improving digestion.
The traditional unsweetened version of kefir has a sour refreshing taste due to lactic bacteria in it. It also has a small degree of alcohol, due to the presence of yeast. It feels slightly carbonated and reminds of unsweetened yoghurt.
Kefir has two types of fermentation processes happening at once (symbiotic) – lactic and yeast, which still cannot be recreated artificially without the living culture.
In Russia this product is given to small children in some schools as a health boosting beverage. It helps the nervous system relax before going to sleep. It is lower in lactose than many other dairy products including the probiotic ones, such as yoghurt, due to a bigger number of good lactic bacteria present.
In modern times, kefir could also be made without the use of dairy products, on the basis of coconut juice for example, by simply adding kefir grains and letting the substance ferment. This makes a great option for those who are lactose-intolerant. Although the vegan version is not as high in probiotic bacteria overall, it is still a great option to boost one’s immunity.
For maximum health benefits it is really important to get the unsweetened classic version of kefir, which tastes sour. Of course nowadays many producers tend to be innovative and create versions with added fruit and sugar and even preservatives due to long transportation. According to our opinion, all these extra ingredients should be avoided for getting the pure taste and health benefits of the product. Kefir should not be produced far away from the place where it is sold, for it to stay natural. The maximum shelf life should be around two weeks.
Ryazhenka, Ayran, Kumis
There are other milk-based products that are similar in production and health properties to kefir. We are going to focus on three really popular ones below, however there are many more with amazing probiotic health benefits.
Ryazhenka is a traditional Russian beverage known for its gut healing and immunity boosting properties. It can also be called ‘varenets’ in some regions of Russia. Ryazhenka has a distinctive cream or beige colour and a comforting smell. Its taste is sour but at the same time creamy. It is made out of baked milk and later fermented with Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus delbrueckii bulgaricus bacteria. Historically it has been made by adding sour cream to baked milk to initiate the fermentation process. The absorption and digestion of such a product, especially its proteins is more effective than of that of the regular baked milk due to its good probiotic bacteria.
Ayran is also a lacto fermented beverage tracing its origins back to the turkic tribes in the steppes. In the tribes that were settled ayran was consumed in a more liquid form, while in the moving tribes it was denser in order for it to be a substitute for food.
Nowadays it is widely consumed in the Caucasus mountains and in countries such as Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran. Its health properties are similar to other probiotic drinks. Normalising the good bacteria in the gut, detoxification, blood purification, boosting immunity, providing essential micronutrients, relieving headaches – those are just some of the benefits of this popular drink.
Ayran is based on cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk with the addition of Streptococcus thermophilus bacteria, which ferment the milk. Later water and salt are added to the mix.
Kumis is another type of probiotic beverage found in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and turkic parts of Russia. It is made by adding lactic bacteria and yeast to horse milk and allowing it to ferment. The beverage can be strong or mild, depending on the extent of the yeast bacteria producing alcohol during fermentation. Due to the fermentation process, the milk proteins and the lactose sugar become more bioavailable than in the initial product. Kumis has a stimulating effect in regards to digestion and blood circulation, making it a staple health food in the regions where it is most widespread.
Traditional buttermilk is a fermented milk product made during the process of making cream of butter out of milk. It has a sour taste and is more viscous than the original milk. The lactic bacteria are let to ferment the milk making this beneficial probiotic beverage. It is common in India and Pakistan, as well as in Arab countries and Balkans in Europe.
Due to its probiotic nature traditional buttermilk is easier on the digestion than the traditional milk and the nutrients in it are more available to be absorbed. It is high in calcium, minerals and various vitamins. However sodium content is the one thing to watch out for here.
Traditional buttermilk differs from the regular one by having living bacteria cultures. For the probiotic effects on the body, one would want to consume the traditional kind.
Some types of cheese
As a result of producing cheese by means of fermentation some varieties do have beneficial probiotic bacteria living in them. The probiotic properties are only applicable to those cheeses that are made from raw unpasteurized cow’s or goat’s milk and to those kinds that are aged naturally. Those include but are not limited to: Gouda, Cheddar, Feta, Parmesan, Padano and Emmental.
Probiotics present in such cheeses can have positive effects on the body, including reducing the infection levels, increasing the immunity, and reducing the flu and cold symptoms. The health effects are very similar to the ones present in yoghurt.
Plant based fermented foods:
The word ‘sauerkraut’ in German means sour cabbage, which is pretty much self explanatory. This product, although very popular in Germany and Austria, is not exclusive only to these cultures. It has been consumed throughout the centuries almost in all northern Europe. It is very common in Slavic countries like Russia, Belarus, Poland and Bulgaria and is known under the variations of the name ‘kvashenaya kapusta’ meaning ‘fermented cabbage”. In all of these countries from Germany to Russia, sour cabbage is a true staple, with it being sold in the majority of all grocery stores and being served practically on every occasion. It is a true ancient food with its roots tracing back to European and Slavic history.
There are many different sauerkraut types. This very ancient food is really simple and is based on finely chopped cabbage, salt and optional spices. Sometimes garlic, carrots and other vegetables can also be added but it all depends on individual or cultural preferences. You can check out our home-made sauerkraut recipe article for a comprehensive instruction on how to make your own sauerkraut probiotic food in just 3-4 days. You will end up enjoying a very nice and healthy product.
For us personally sauerkraut is the queen of all probiotic foods. The first reason is because of its simplicity and affordability. Cabbage is a really clean and cheap product. The second reason is because of its health benefits in improving digestion. This is all possible because true sauerkraut is a result of lactic bacteria eating sugars in the shredded cabbage and producing probiotics and good lactic acids aiding many processes in the human body. Sauerkraut preparation does not involve any excessive sugars and alcoholic byproducts present in the alcoholic fermentation of other probiotic products such as kefir, kvass, yoghurt, etc. It just gives us lactic acid and good probiotic bacteria, which is a much healthier option, according to our experience. What more can we wish for? A truly magical food from Europe.
Other pickles (without vinegar)
Using the same lactic fermentation process as in sauerkraut you can also make other vegetable pickles, such as cucumbers and tomatoes. These can be made by letting these vegetables sit in a brine solution for a certain period of time in order to be fermented by lactic bacteria on their surface. The lactic bacteria will eat the sugars from the vegetables and pre-digest them producing a wonderful probiotic product. The result will be tasty sour vegetables which can be eaten as a garnish or as an appetizer.
However, it is important to have in mind that when vinegar enters the equation, there are no probiotic benefits left. Vinegar pickles are not as healthy because they do not have living bacteria in them. Adding vinegar kills probiotics.
Salt-water fermented olives
Same principle applies to olives. You can ferment them with the help of lactic bacteria and salt and get a wonderful tasty result. This is what distinguishes good quality olives in brine from the ones which do not have probiotic qualities. Greek Halkidiki olives are very tasty for this exact reason, they are allowed to ferment with time, not being rushed with the addition of unnecessary chemicals and vinegar. The cheaper mass produced olives are often not allowed to sit in brine solution long enough to ferment properly and develop the distinctive taste, quality and health benefits. We should watch out for such olives shopping in the supermarket. A good indicator of probiotics and quality in general is when you see a cloudy milky white substance at the bottom of the container or pack. This is lactic acid being visible after a proper fermentation process has taken place. This quality test also applies to any other vegetables being fermented by probiotic bacteria. Properly lacto-fermented cucumbers should have a white cloudy layer at the bottom of the jar, while the vinegar fermentation of cucumbers does not give such an effect.
Tempeh is a health product originating in Indonesia and is made by adding tempeh starter probiotic culture to soya beans and then allowing them to ferment during 24 hours. The final product looks like a whitish block, similar to cheese and is supposed to be cut into pieces and added to different dishes in different ways.
Its main benefits are that it contains big amounts of digestible protein as well as more easily available calcium for bone health due to the probiotic nature of the product. As other probiotic foods tempeh is good for digestion health and boosts natural immunity of the body.
This is a famous Korean fermented product containing heaps of probiotics. Similarly to sauerkraut it is made out of cabbage, but from a different, softer kind of it – the Chinese cabbage. Unlike sauerkraut it has many additional ingredients in it, such as radishes, red pepper, fish sauce and garlic. The bacteria process the sugars in all the vegetables producing a probiotic food in return. This is why the end product is very flavoursome as well as spicy with a bright reddish colour.
Although the traditional recipe calls for a fish sauce, kimchi can also be made vegan by excluding the addition of this ingredient. The probiotics properties of the product still remain intact in this case.
Due to its long fermentation process (14 days), the probiotic lactic bacteria living in kimchi are especially beneficial for the immunity and digestive tract when consumed. The product is rich in fiber, vitamin A, B vitamins, as well as in many other essential nutrients.
Miso is a traditional Japanese ingredient for many dishes. It can be consumed in a form of soup or paste in different variations. The paste can be dissolved in liquids and then used or consumed in its initial form as a paste or spread. Japanese believe that it is a beneficial product aiding the digestion and having curing properties.
It is made by fermenting soybeans, rice or wheat with the help of a koji fungus (Aspergillus oryzae). The fermentation process time can take up to a certain number of years to be complete, giving a different taste depending on the length of fermentation.
Thus there are different types of miso out there which could be enjoyed. For example the classification into white, yellow and red could offer a variety of tastes for different purposes and dishes. The difference between these types of miso is their fermentation period and their corresponding milder/stronger flavour.
Health benefits of miso are numerous. Having a large number of probiotic bacteria, the product aids in regulating the digestion and absorption of many nutrients, including protein. Miso is rich in vitamin K and B vitamins, zinc and copper. It helps increase the immunity by repopulating the gut with healthy ‘good’ bacteria.
Despite the health benefits, there are also some drawbacks in relation to miso. First of all it may be made out of genetically modified soya, which is not so good for the overall health. One should always watch out for this factor and buy miso produced from organic ingredients. Secondly, miso contains very high amounts of sodium which can lead to hypertension and bloating happening after consumption. Moderation and keeping an eye on the amount of miso being consumed is key here.
Kombucha or tea mushroom
Kombucha has recently become very popular in the healthy lifestyle/vegan movement. However the origins of this product can be traced back to ancient Manchuria, where it was believed to clean the liver and provide an energy boost. Later, in the beginning of 20th century the product entered Europe through Russia and became famous around the world.
The beverage is made using a symbiotic organism of bacteria and yeast allowing it to ferment black tea and dissolved sugar to produce a slightly alcoholic taste. The symbiotic organism looks like a pancake and can be reused to produce different batches at home.
Not all probiotics are made equal. Despite its popularity, caution should be taken in consuming such a beverage because a spoilt, over-fermented product could cause negative effects on health. The alcoholic content is also something to watch out for. The health side effects have not yet been studied in detail to confidently say that kombucha aids the body as much as other probiotic products (based on lactic fermentation for example) and is fully safe.
Natto is a cultured Japanese soy product which contains a surprising amount of probiotics. Although its smell, taste and slimy consistency may be repulsive to some, it actually bears a lot of health benefits. It is claimed to benefit heart and bone health and increase the overall immunity. Protecting the gut from bad bacteria and toxins is a pleasant side effect of consuming natto beans.
The bacteria doing the fermentation are Bacillus subtilis. They do so by eating the sugars present in the soybeans. A result is a product which is more digestible than the original soybeans with heaps of bioavailable protein, vitamins, such as vitamin K, minerals and other nutrients. It is worth mentioning that the antinutrients naturally present in soybeans are greatly reduced during the process of fermentation giving the cultured food an advantage over its raw counterpart.
Kvass is a very popular beverage in Slavic and eastern European countries and has been so already for a very long time, more than a 1000 years at least. The very word ‘kvass’ means ‘fermented’. A traditional kvass is based on fermenting bread or a grain such rye in a complex process which involves both alcoholic and lactic fermentations taking place simultaneously, giving the kvass its unique sour taste and qualities. In Russia it is known for quenching thirst in hot summer days and providing the much needed freshness. As for the health benefits, kvass is known to balance the healthy sodium levels in the body and aid in digesting heavy greasy and protein-based foods. It is rich in B vitamins and improves the overall digestion, along with giving energy and vitamin C. It is also known for its downside of containing a lot of sugar. This is why it is only recommended to drink no more than one glass per day in order to get the benefits and at the same time limit the sugar impacts on the body. Kvass is not only limited to rye in terms of production, but can also be made out of oats, barley, even beets and carrots for more exotic flavours. Fresh and dried fruit, like raisins, can also be used in its preparation, so long that the added yeast has a source of sugar to eat and the lactic bacteria are also satisfied.
Now that we have looked at all of our examples of natural probiotic foods, we can see that there is a lot to choose from, catering to all sorts of tastes, diets and necessities. Here we have separated all the products into two categories – plant-based foods and dairy-based foods, so that vegan, vegetarian and all other diets are represented. We can also see that the aforementioned products can be classified according to the type of fermentation that they are produced by – whether it is lacto-bacterial or alcoholic fermentation or both. This factor is important to consider if one is sensitive to any of the byproducts of these bacterial or yeast fermentation processes. Apart from this, it is each person’s individual choice whether to consume fermented food probiotics or not, and if yes, which ones to consume. Knowing the details presented in this article can help one make an informed decision.