Probiotics and Prebiotics Explained

Food Unwrapped
Sue with Matt Tebbutt from Food Unwrapped

I’m a big fan of the TV programme ‘Food Unwrapped’. It’s one of the few sources of food education that we can all access that isn’t about selling us a product. It entertains as well as educates, it’s not condescending, and even as someone who is immersed in the world of food education I always find it interesting.

So when I was asked to appear on their ‘summer diet special’, I was really happy to take part, especially as they specifically wanted to ask about probiotics.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are beneficial forms of gut bacteria that help stimulate the natural enzymes and processes that keep our digestive organs functioning properly. This in turn influences the health of our whole body – including our mental state. For these live bacteria to keep you healthy, you have to keep them healthy by eating probiotic foods (or, if it is difficult for you to access these foods at times, take supplements).

There are several types of food and drink that keep our gut bacteria (or what is known as the microbiome) healthy. Here are my favourites – try to eat or drink at least one of them every day.

  1. Yoghurt

One of the best and most widely available probiotic foods is live cultured yogurt, especially if you can find a locally made variety. If you are sensitive to cows milk, you can find goat’s milk yoghurt quite easily now, or non-dairy yoghurts infused with forms of probiotics like lactobacillus or acidophilus.

Be sure to read the ingredients list, as not all yoghurt is made equally. Many popular ‘fruit’ brands are filled with high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavours, and are not much different to a sugary ice cream. In low-fat varieties, the fat is often replaced with cheap carbohydrate ‘filler’ ingredients. So choose a plain full- fat variety (Greek-style is good) and add your own fresh fruit.

  1. Milk Kefir
Milk Kefir
Milk Kefir

Similar to yogurt, this fermented dairy product is made from milk, but in kefir it is cultured by a Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY), commonly called milk kefir grains. The SCOBY feeds on the sugars from the milk, making a product that is lower in sugar, more easily digestible and more easily tolerated by those who do not normally get on well with dairy. High in lactobacilli and bifidus bacteria, kefir is also rich in antioxidants. You can buy it in health food shops or, as I do, make your own. For this, you can buy kefir grains online, or better still find someone who makes their own and ask them for some grains, as grains are always reproducing. It’s really easy!

3. Sauerkraut

Made mainly from fermented cabbage, sauerkraut is extremely rich in healthy live cultures and vitamins A, B, C, and K. You can buy it, or make your own, but if you buy it make sure it is fresh and live, stored in the refrigerated section of the shop.

  1. Miso Soup

Miso is made from fermented rye, beans, rice or barley, and is one of the most important components of the Japanese diet. It is commonly used in macrobiotic cooking as a digestive regulator. Just add a tablespoon of miso to some hot water to make a quick probiotic-rich soup, or add to a stew for instant rich umami flavor.

5. Pickles

Most vegetables can be pickled, and all of them offer a rich source of probiotics.

6. Tempeh

Tempeh is a fermented, probiotic-rich food made from soybeans. A great source of vitamin B12, it can be sauteed, grilled or baked. It is sometimes sold as a ‘bacon substitute’.

7. Kimchi

An Asian form of sauerkraut, kimchi is spicy fermented chinese cabbage, sometimes also containing Mooli radish, typically served alongside meals in Korea. Besides beneficial bacteria, Kimchi is also a great source of vitamin C, B vitamins, beta-carotene, calcium, iron, potassium, and dietary fibre.

  1. Kombucha Tea

Kombucha is made from sweet black or green tea that has been fermented by a SCOBY (see ‘Kefir’, above). It contains a high amount of healthy gut bacteria. This probiotic drink has been used for centuries and is believed to help increase your energy and enhance your well-being.

  1. Water Kefir

Is made from that has been fermented by a SCOBY known as water kefir grains. The grains eat the sugar from the sugar water, and the result is a sparkling fermented drink that you can flavour as you like – some like to add ginger or fruit.

Probiotics feed on Prebiotics

If you are eating probiotic foods, you also need to think about what these probiotics need to feed on in your gut.

These are a non-digestible food ingredient that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines. They contain an type of fibre that passes through the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract and remains undigested, since the human body can’t fully break it down. Once it has passed through the small intestine, it reaches the colon, where it is fermented by the gut microflora.

Prebiotics feed, nourish and encourage the probiotics that are already in your gut. These prebiotic foods have been shown to increase beneficial bacteria and improve gastrointestinal health. Some of the main sources are in vegetables such as Jerusalem Artichokes, Asparagus and Leeks, and also ocean-based plants such as spirulina, chlorella, and blue-green algae.

Dark Chocolate

Of particular interest to many is the potential of chocolate, as it has been found to be a very effective carrier for probiotics. Chocolate helps them survive the extreme pHs of the digestive tract to make it to the colon. Because of this protective ability, probiotics are sometimes added to high-quality dark chocolate.