The Best & Worst Probiotic Foods For Gut Health

by Zena Wozniak, NC, RYT and Mara Santilli · Updated May 27, 2022
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Remember when probiotics were those unknown “bacteria” in yogurt that felt kind of weird knowing that you were eating? Thankfully, many people have jumped on the probiotic bandwagon since then. By now you’ve probably heard that probiotics are essential to gut health, which can translate to a stronger immune system and even clearer skin. They are the good bacteria that nourish your body’s various microbiomes (there’s one in the gut and skin), or environments of bacteria that are important to your health. 

Luckily, you can find naturally occurring probiotics in many delicious traditional foods. But not all probiotic benefits are created equal.

To find the very best probiotic foods, I consulted with registered dietitian Sarah Greenfield, RD, CSSD and Gaby Vaca-Flores, RDN, CLE, the education specialist at HUM. Their criteria? Whether evaluating probiotic foods, or probiotic supplements, she considers both the variety of bacteria strains and their potency. Check out these probiotic food lists—there are definitely a few items you can add to your grocery cart.

The Best Probiotic Foods

Sauerkraut - Best Probiotic Foods - The Wellnest by HUM Nutrition

Sauerkraut

Making sauerkraut is one of the oldest forms of fermenting, and it’s one of the top probiotic foods. Not only does sauerkraut contain probiotics, but it also has fiber, iron, antioxidants, and vitamins C, B, and K. For optimal probiotic strength, look for an unpasteurized sauerkraut with no added sugar.

Kimchi

Usually made from cabbage and other veggies, it contains a variety of probiotic strains. It’s also high in fiber, iron, and vitamins K and B2. Again, be sure to get yours with no added sugar.

Traditional Pickles

In general, pickles are low in calories and a great snack. But watch out! The majority of store-bought pickles are made with vinegar and do not contain probiotics. Pickles made in a brine of salt and water, however, are a great source of probiotics in food! They also contain fiber and vitamin K. As with the options above, opt for brands with no added sugar!

Very Good Probiotic Foods

Kefir - Best Probiotic Foods - The Wellnest by HUM Nutrition

Keifir

Unfamiliar with this stuff? It’s a fermented beverage that’s similar to yogurt in taste but has a thinner consistency. Perfect for incorporating into smoothies. Kefir is a good source of probiotics and actually contains a greater variety of probiotics than its thicker counterpart.

Yogurt

Yogurt is one of the classic foods with probiotics. It contains lactobacillus, a common strain of good bacteria, and can help break down lactose into lactic acid, which aids in digestion. Make sure you find yogurts with live active cultures since processing kills many probiotics. It can also contain a lot of added sugar so, as always, look for options with no added sugar.

Buttermilk

There are two kinds of buttermilk: traditional and cultured. Both contain probiotics as well as vitamin B12 and calcium.

Raw Cheese

Believe it or not, raw cheese is edible and is a high probiotic food. But there’s a catch in terms of food safety: You have to make sure you get raw cheese that was made from high-quality milk and from a vendor you trust.

Good Probiotic Foods

Tempeh - Best Probiotic Foods - The Wellnest by HUM Nutrition

Tempeh

Tempeh is also known as fermented soy. The fermentation process increases your body’s ability to absorb certain minerals and produces B12. It’s good for vegetarians and vegans, but be careful about the quality of soy and how much you are eating. Too much soy can have a negative impact on your health.

Natto

This fermented soy is typically eaten for breakfast in Japan. It’s high in protein, vitamin K2 and mostly contains the bacillus subtilis strain, a type of bacteria that’s essential to your GI tract.

Kombucha

You’ll get a variety of probiotics in kombucha, but it’s still best to drink it in moderation. Most commercial kombucha has a lot of added sugar and the carbonation can cause additional bloating.

Worst Probiotic Foods

Kvass - Best Probiotic Foods - The Wellnest by HUM Nutrition

Kvass

This Eastern-European drink is similar to kombucha, but it’s fermented from rye bread. It contains B12 but, like kombucha, the carbonation may cause digestive upset.

Cottage Cheese

While cottage cheese is a great source of protein and technically a fermented product, most are pasteurized and don’t contain probiotics. To get probiotic benefits, you’ll have to hunt to find a brand that has live active cultures.

Miso

Although miso is made from fermented soybeans and higher in protein, heating kills most of its probiotics. Also, miso is often high in sodium and in some cases MSG. With that said, if you can find authentic miso without a series of additives, there are many associated health benefits (like the protein, Vitamin K, and zinc in miso, to start).

Soudough

As much as making those starter kits is a great hobby, sourdough might not be the healthiest probiotic food out there. Another one that starts with some processing fermentation, but ultimately kills the majority of good bacteria in the heated baking process.

False Probiotic Foods

In our hunt for a complete list of probiotic foods, a few came up that ultimately weren’t really probiotics at all. Consider this list proof that you can’t trust everything that comes up on Google.

Peas - Low Probiotic Food - The Wellnest by HUM Nutrition

Peas

While scientists were able to isolate a compound that is beneficial to digestion and gut health in peas, the verdict is still out on whether you can get adequate amounts from eating the vegetable on its own.

Dark Chocolate

We know! Bummer. So close, but not quite. To make chocolate, cacao is fermented, which would lead to beneficial probiotic bacteria, if only the chocolate weren’t then heated later in processing. Some manufacturers are now adding probiotics back in, but it’s certainly not a given for your standard dark-chocolate bar.

Apple Cider Vinegar

While apple cider vinegar is a potent natural ingredient for boosting gut health, it’s not technically a probiotic.

Best Prebiotic Foods

Wait, what are prebiotics? It turns out your body’s microbiomes need more than just probiotics to stay healthy. Prebiotics are the essential food for probiotics. “They help promote probiotic growth and amplify their beneficial effects,” says Vaca-Flores. Here are some of the top prebiotic foods you should also incorporate into your diet: 

  • Apples—which deliver pectin, a prebiotic fiber that can help promote probiotic growth. 
  • Garlic—can help nurture important healthy bacteria called Bifidobacteria. 
  • Chicory root—has high amounts of a prebiotic fiber, inulin, which helps support healthy digestion. 
  • Unripe bananas—provide both inulin and resistant starch, which in the body functions as prebiotics.

PEAS

While scientists were able to isolate a compound that is beneficial to digestion and gut health in peas, the verdict is still out on whether you can get adequate amounts from eating the vegetable on its own.

DARK CHOCOLATE

We know! Bummer. So close, but not quite. To make chocolate, cacao is fermented, which would lead to beneficial probiotic bacteria, if only the chocolate weren’t then heated later in processing. Some manufacturers are now adding probiotics back in, but it’s certainly not a given for your standard dark-chocolate bar.

APPLE CIDER VINEGAR

While apple cider vinegar is a potent natural ingredient for boosting gut health, it’s not technically a probiotic.

BEST PREBIOTIC FOODS

Wait, what are prebiotics? It turns out your body’s microbiomes need more than just probiotics to stay healthy. Prebiotics are the essential food for probiotics. “They help promote probiotic growth and amplify their beneficial effects,” says Vaca-Flores. Here are some of the top prebiotic foods you should also incorporate into your diet: 

  • Apples—which deliver pectin, a prebiotic fiber that can help promote probiotic growth. 
  • Garlic—can help nurture important healthy bacteria called Bifidobacteria. 
  • Chicory root—has high amounts of a prebiotic fiber, inulin, which helps support healthy digestion. 
  • Unripe bananas—provide both inulin and resistant starch, which in the body functions as prebiotics.
  • Oats—are packed with beta-glucan, a prebiotic fiber that can boost gut bacteria.  

When Should You Take Probiotic Supplements?

Most of these foods sound delicious, but that might not be the case for everyone, and people might have certain dietary restrictions that prohibit them from eating certain probiotic foods. How do you know when to supplement with probiotics? “If you can’t eat the majority of these probiotic foods, it would be a good idea to add a probiotic supplement into your daily mix,” says Vaca-Flores. You also may notice changes in the health of your microbiomes that could prompt a need for a boost in probiotics. For example, if you have signs of poor gut or skin health, including an upset stomach, gas and bloating, changes in bowel movements, or skin irritation and breakouts, that could be your sign to start a probiotic supplement, according to Vaca-Flores. 

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Best Probiotic Foods List - The Wellnest by HUM Nutrition

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