In the last few decades, there has been a lot of interest in probiotic supplements and foods, thanks to studies suggesting that friendly bacteria could help to treat or prevent an array of ailments: from indigestion and diarrhea to irritable bowel syndrome and chronic inflammation — the root cause of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. When we ingest more of these friendly organisms, which bear long names like lactobacillus acidophilus, they help to control the amount of harmful bacteria in our gut and prevent them from growing out of control.
Since the lactobacillus bacteria found in each probiotic food are not the same, plus the fact that every bacterium plays a different role in the body, it is a good idea to include a variety of naturally fermented foods in our diet.
But regardless of which probiotic food you choose, it is important to choose one that is not pasteurized or homogenized as these will destroy most of the useful microorganisms that lend probiotic foods their health-promoting powers.
Needless to say, when you are eating probiotic foods at home, it is best to process them minimally, if at all. It is also important to buy fermented foods from a source you can trust as improperly fermented foods can be toxic.
Here are some traditional probiotic foods that have been enjoyed by people from around the world for thousands of years:
Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. It contains the bacterial strainbacillus subtilis (used to be known as bacillus antto) which gives natto its characteristic stringy consistency.
Natto is one of my favorite probiotic foods, but sadly not all my friends share the same taste. It has a distinctive pungent smell and an equally unique flavor not found in other foods. The beans are sticky and when chewed, turns slippery in the mouth.
How to Eat Natto?
Natto is traditionally consumed with rice for breakfast in Japan. Simply mix natto, some soy sauce and rice thoroughly before eating. Nowadays, you can also find natto in many other products such as natto sushi, natto burrito and natto salad. Yum yum!
Health Benefits of Natto:
Like all soybean products, natto is high in plant protein. Studies found that natto is also rich in vitamin K which is essential for healthy blood clotting as well as protection against bone fractures and osteoporosis. Natto also contains an enzyme called nattokinase which has been observed to dissolve blood clots in animal tests. It works by breaking down fibrin, a protein which can lead to heart attack, stroke, poor circulation and slow tissue repair when present in excess.
Where to Buy Natto?
Find them in the frozen food section in Asian grocery stores near you. Many major supermarkets, such as Berkeley Bowl in the US and Cold Storage in Singapore, carry different types of nattos. If you prefer organic natto, try Megumi Natto from the US.
Note: When shopping for natto, don’t be alarmed to find high fructose corn syrup and monosodium glutamate in the ingredients list. These are the ingredients used in the sauce that accompanies the natto, not in the natto itself. So, ditch the sauce and enjoy the beans with a little soy sauce!
Another very popular probiotic foods, kimchi is a well-known Korean pickled dish that has seen wide acceptance by many cultures outside of Korea. It is created by mixing a main ingredient such as cabbage with a host of other seasonings and ingredients, like hot pepper flakes, radish, carrot, garlic, ginger, onion, salt and fish sauce. The mixture is then left aside to ferment from a few days to a couple of weeks.
The most common type of kimchi is baechu, which is made with Chinese cabbages. But there are countless other variations of kimchi that are made with cucumbers, eggplants, leeks, radishes and other in season vegetables.
Kimchi is very spicy due to the liberal use of red chili pepper, and can also be high in sodium, probably the result of fish sauce. So if you are watching your sodium intake, do look out for kimchi with lower salt content.
How to Eat Kimchi?
There are many ways to consume kimchi. You can use it as a condiment, which is my preferred way of eating since I can only hold a little spicy food at a time, or cook it with practically any food you have on hand.
But bear in mind that due to the spiciness of kimchi, whatever food you match with kimchi will probably end up with one overpowering taste, and that is: hot!
To prevent the loss of beneficial enzymes and bacteria in kimchi, it is also recommended that you add kimchi last in the cooking process and avoid overcooking it.
Health Benefits of Kimchi:
Kimchi contains the bacterium called lactobacillus kimchii as well as other lactic acid bacteria that are beneficial to our gastrointestinal as well as immune systems. A typical kimchi made with Chinese cabbage, carrot, garlic, ginger, onion and pepper is also high in vitamin A, C, B1, B2, beta-carotene, calcium and iron. Animal studies also suggested that kimchi may be effective against the avian flu virus.
Where to Buy Kimchi?
Why buy when you can make your own? If you do not mind spending some time and wish to have a kimchi that is not too spicy and salty, check out this delicious online resource on how to make your own kimchi. But if the thought of making your own kimchi is unimaginable, you can also order ready-made kimchi from speciality stores.
Miso is an indispensable seasoning found in almost all Japanese kitchens. It is made popular by Japanese restaurants which often serve miso soup alongside bento.
Miso is produced by fermenting soybean, barley, brown rice, or other grains with a type of fungus known as koji (aspergillus oryzae) in Japan.
The fermentation process can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of years to complete and the end result is a red, white or dark brown colored paste with a buttery texture. Typically, the darker the color of the miso, the saltier and stronger the flavor.
How to Use Miso?
Miso soup is famous throughout the world and it is very easy to prepare. Simply dissolve a tablespoonful of miso (or more depending on how strong a taste you prefer) in a pot of water filled with tofu, seaweed and other ingredients of your choice. You may find it easier to dissolve miso by first mixing it with a little warm water.
But the use of miso is not limited to soups only. Japanese uses the protein-rich miso in a multitude of ways, including spreading a thick layer of miso on snacks made with pounded glutinuous rice. Instead of using butter or salt, you can also spread miso on freshly cooked corn on the cob and toasts. The uses of miso are only limited by your imagination and personal preference.
Like most probiotic foods, miso should only be added to soups or other dishes just before they are removed from the heat. This is to preserve the live koji cultures in miso and also to retain as much nutrients as possible.
Health Benefits of Miso:
Besides containing a good amount of readily absorbable protein, miso is also high in vitamin B12. It also supplies trace levels of minerals such as zinc, copper and manganese which are crucial for good health.
Where to Buy Miso?
Due to the popularity of Japanese foods, you can find miso in almost every supermarket. As people become more mindful of their salt intake, you can also find miso with reduced salt in the aisles. There are also organic miso for those who prefer non-GMO and greener products.
Originated from Indonesia, tempeh is another probiotic food derived from fermented soybeans. Tempeh is produced by adding a tempeh starter containing the fungus rhizopus oligosporus to partially cooked soybeans and allowing the dehulled beans to ferment for about a day or two. When it matures, all the gaps in between the beans will be filled completely with a thin layer of white fungi which binds the soybeans tightly together into a compact piece of cake.
Tempeh has a slight ammonia smell and flavor that can be reduced with cooking. It has a nutty taste that is reminiscent of meat, making tempeh a good substitute for meat.
How to Eat Tempeh?
In Southeast Asia, tempeh is often deep fried which will greatly diminish the health benefits of tempeh. However, it is not common to serve tempeh raw in the region either as many people, myself included, find the taste of uncooked tempeh too strong. I usually boil tempeh briefly in hot water and serve it with miso or light soy sauce. Tempeh can also be stir fried with vegetables as a replacement for meat. The patty-shaped tempeh also makes an ideal meatless burger.
Health Benefits of Tempeh:
Rhizopus oligosporus produces a type of antibiotic that is effective against certain bacteria, including staphylococcus aureuswhich can cause pneumonia and sepsis. The amazing thing about this natural antibiotic is that it is heat resistant and can withstand a wide range of pH levels.
Like miso and natto, the protein and other nutrients in soybean becomes more digestible after it is broken down by bacteria or mold. That is why fermented bean products like tempeh would not cause gas, indigestion or other intestinal discomfort that are associated with eating beans. In addition, since tempeh is not salted, it is suitable for people who are on low-sodium diet.
Where to Buy Tempeh?
With increasing awareness about the goodness of tempeh, you can find this superfood in many major supermarkets, usually in the freezer compartment. Otherwise, try looking for frozen tempeh in health food stores and Asian grocery stores. In Singapore and Malaysia, you can easily find fresh tempeh in wet markets.
Sauerkraut is the western counterpart of kimchi, except that it does not contain as much seasonings and ingredients the way kimchi does.
Popular in the Europe and America, sauerkraut usually only has shredded cabbage and salt as the main ingredients.
It is produced by allowing salted cabbage to ferment on its own without the addition of any starter or vinegar for two weeks or more.
Sauerkraut is sour in taste due to the formation of lactic acid during the fermentation of cabbage.
How to Eat Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut goes well with savory food and is often served as a side dish at homes and in restaurants. It is very versatile and can be combined with many foods to give an acidic edge.
It is also common in many places to serve sauerkraut on top of hot dogs.
Health Benefits of Sauerkraut:
Like kimchi, sauerkraut is high in vitamin C and digestive enzymes.It is also a good source of natural lactic acid bacteria such as lactobacillus and pediococcus.
Juice from sauerkraut is reportedly good against gastrointestinal conditions like diarrhea and constipation, and is recommended as an effective flu preventive beverage.
Where to Buy Sauerkraut?
For instant sauerkraut gratification, hit your nearest grocery store or supermarket.
It shouldn’t be hard to find bottled or canned sauerkraut in many places.
You can also order raw organic sauerkraut online from Amazon.com.
But nothing beats homemade sauerkraut. If you are in a DIY mood, check out this useful tutorial from Boing Boing to make your own sauerkraut.
Avid fermented vegetable maker should also seriously consider adding this fermenting crock pot into your list of must-have kitchen tools.
Kefir is a popular health drink in many European countries including Finland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sweden and Ukraine. It is produced by adding kefir grains to cow, goat or sheep’s milk and letting the mixture ferment for a day.
The fermentation of milk by the bacteria and yeasts in kefir starter breaks down lactose in the milk. That is why kefir is suitable for those who are otherwise lactose intolerant.
Kefir is tart and tastes thicker than milk with a slight hint of alcohol.
You can also find non-dairy kefir made from sugary water, coconut water and fruit juice.
To distinguish between different types of kefir, dairy kefir is also called milk kefir, while non-dairy ones are generally known as water kefir.
How to Drink Kefir:
Milk kefir is consumed pretty much like normal milk and thus, it can be used as a viable alternative to milk in smoothies, dressings, sauces and other recipes. In countries where kefir is popular, kefir flavored with fruits or other flavorings is also common.
Health Benefits of Kefir:
Thanks to the beneficial bacteria and yeast,milk protein becomes more digestible and more readily absorb by the body in kefir.
The bacteria in kefir grains lactobacillus kefiranofaciens and lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus produce what is known as kefiran, a gel-like polysaccharide.
In experiments conducted on animals, kefiran was found to exhibit anti-tumour and anti-inflammatory properties. It also reduced blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels in rats.
Where to Buy Kefir?
The process of making kefir is, of course, no longer a closely guarded secret.
Nowadays, you can find online communities that share milk and water kefir recipes as well as grains with others from around the world. Here is one newbie guide on how to brew water kefir.
You can also buy milk kefir starter and water kefir grains online and make your own kefir from water, cow, goat or soy milk.
The steps are straight forward, though it may take a few tries to get the hang of it.
How about those who like to drink kefir but do not wish to invest the time in making their own?
Well, there are always ready-made kefir drinks such as young coconut kefir and plain milk kefir available for sale online and in natural food stores!