Could bacteria be a good thing? While we typically associate them with illness and infection, lots of good, live bacteria, called probiotics, may improve our health.
Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms. People worldwide have enjoyed foods rich in these microorganisms for thousands of years, but it may be new to many in the USA.
What is the real story, and how do you choose wisely?
There are thousands, if not billions, of bacteria living in our bodies. Many reputable medical schools and health organizations are studying these beneficial bacteria. It appears probiotics aid digestion, and they prevent gastrointestinal issues. Scientists are studying other benefits, such as nutrient absorption and preventing infections and allergies, and it seems promising.
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So promising that most health professionals agree there are benefits to be gained from eating foods rich in probiotics. But what foods?
Yogurt is perhaps the most readily available source, but not all yogurts are created equal when it comes to probiotics. Read the label and be sure it contains live cultures (and you can now look for the new, voluntary Live Active Cultures seal from the National Yogurt Association.) It need not be a specific brand, but it must have live and active cultures to contain the beneficial probiotics.
Fermented and pickled foods are good probiotic sources. While this sounds easy, it is tricky, as you need to select foods that are naturally fermented. Sauerkraut in a can (or even the refrigerated kind in the bag at the grocery store) has been pasteurized, and the canning process kills the beneficial bacteria cultures. The same is true for pickles. Instead, look for organic pickles and sauerkraut that are naturally fermented.
Kimchi is a fermented cabbage dish popular in Korea, and this probiotic rich food is now available in local grocery stores.
Kefir is a cross between yogurt and milk, and it contains probiotics. It is great to use in smoothies.
Miso contains probiotics. Miso is fermented, cooked soybeans and is readily available at Asian grocery stores. Many Asian restaurants and groceries sell prepared miso soup. In addition to soup, use miso to make a tasty glaze on fish or to flavor a salad dressing. Add the miso paste at the end of the cooking to protect the healthy cultures.
As for cheese, that can be confusing because only some cheese contains probiotics. Gouda is a good source. Roquefort and some cheddar cheeses also contain probiotics. Read the labels and look for ones that contain live and active cultures. Raw, organic cheese made from unpasteurized milk probably means it is a source of probiotics.
Some buttermilks and acidophilus milks may be good sources, but again, it isn’t easy. The cultured buttermilk commonly sold in the USA is not a source of probiotics, but traditional buttermilk (once common only in India, Nepal and Pakistan) is.
Foods more common in other parts of the world and just recently introduced here that contain probiotics include kombucha, a fermented, sweetened black tea, and tempeh, from Indonesia, a cake of partially cooked soybeans.
Other foods are beginning to show up on lists of probiotic foods, including dark chocolate, green peas, ginger beer, sourdough bread and microalgae. Studies continue, so the list of foods may change. It is wise to read labels carefully and ask for assistance from a registered dietitian.
Prebiotics are another classification of food associated with probiotics. Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates that nourish the probiotics and help them to grow and thrive. Prebiotics include whole grains, bananas, asparagus, onions, garlic, honey, Jerusalem artichokes, oatmeal and legumes.
Health claims are abundant. Some suggest that a diet rich in probiotics will prevent or reduce the severity of colds and flu, promote weight loss, lower blood pressure, treat eczema and depression or reduce tooth decay and periodontal disease. The research is not conclusive yet, so be patient while studies continue on this complex topic and be cautious if you read something that suggests otherwise. Seek reputable information from your physician.
What about pills and supplements? Dietary supplements do not go through the same rigorous testing as prescription drugs do. While claims are supposed to be substantiated, read advertisements skeptically and watch for recalls. Talk with your doctor before taking any supplement or pill.
What is the best route to take on this new food topic? Consider adding a variety of foods rich in probiotics to your diet, and maintain a balanced, fiber-rich diet.
Read food labels carefully.
And finally, try to stay up-to-date on probiotics. Researchers are busy unlocking the secrets.
Kathy Moore is one of two cookbook authors and food consultants that make up The Electrified Cooks. Her most recent cookbook is Slow Cooker Desserts, Oh So Easy, Oh So Delicious! The Newlywed Cookbook: Cooking Happily Ever After was introduced earlier this year. She develops the recipes for the “Eating for Life” column for The Kansas City Star and is a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier. She blogs at pluggedintocooking.com .