Unless you’ve been living and pumping iron in an off-grid cave, you have likely noticed that interest in the human microbiome has blossomed in recent years. Modern nutrition discourse is saturated with attention devoted to the microbes that populate our guts. The reason for the heightened interest in gut bugs is that research is making it increasingly clear that our microbiome, the trillions-strong community of bacteria in our digestive tract, is involved in not just digestive health but also brain functioning, immune health, and maybe even athletic performance. Interestingly, the microbes in our microbiome can produce bioactive compounds, such as short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, that have anti-inflammatory and other profound effects on the human body. Take care of your gut, and in turn, it will take care of you.

This is why there has been such a swell of enthusiasm for fermented foods and drinks as a means to consume more probiotics to populate our microbiome with beneficial microorganisms. Probiotics are live microorganisms that confer health benefits to the host, and can be obtained from various foods and beverages. (Just a decade ago, I never thought so much of my nutrition writing would be devoted to the importance of eating more bugs.)

This probiotic hoopla may leave you considering incorporating more probiotic-rich fermented foods into your diet. Which, you probably should as a means to give your gut microbiome a boost. And these days, there are a lot more ways to eat your daily quota of good-guy bugs than from a bowl of yogurt.

Here are the top fermented foods that are worthy of space in your grocery cart.

What Exactly Are Fermented Foods and Drinks?

Fermentation is a process that’s used to produce some of the world’s most popular foods and beverages. It is an anaerobic process where microorganisms (predominantly yeast and lactic acid bacteria) break down components of foods such as sugars into other products including lactic acid and alcohol. Historically in a time before Maytag, this had been used to extend the shelf-life of items like vegetables and dairy. This gave people the option of prolonging the “freshness” of grains, vegetables and milk that were available to them during different seasons. Perhaps these were the original processed foods. The fermentation process also generates new flavor compounds and, ergo, why yogurt does not taste just like thick milk.

1. Kefir

Kefir with probiotics on a wooden spoon and clay bowl next to a cup of milk
Angela Aladro mella

No shade to Greek yogurt, but Kefir just might be the best dairy product you can eat, or drink. It’s made when milk is fermented by lactic acid bacteria and yeasts encased in what is known as “kefir grains”. It has a consistency similar to buttermilk, which is why kefir is closer to a dairy drink than a spoonable product like yogurt. What you need to know is that most brands contain a higher probiotic count including beneficial Lactobacilli species than yogurt, which accounts for its extra tang, which admittingly, can take some getting used to.

Perhaps a kefir habit can help with your six-pack pursuit? A preliminary study in the European Journal of Nutrition found that subjects who consumed up to 4 servings of kefir daily for 8 weeks experienced greater losses of overall body weight as well as body fat around their waistlines than those who took in the same number of daily calories which included only 2 servings of non-fermented low-fat dairy. This body composition benefit could be attributed to a synergy of probiotics, protein, vitamins and minerals found in kefir. But the research needs to be repeated in other populations including men. Research shows that for some people kefir can be easier to digest than regular milk. A digestive benefit attributed to the robust population of microbes in kefir feasting on and reducing levels of lactose – a naturally occurring sugar in dairy that can cause digestive woes for various people. It’s now possible to find plant-based kefir made from items like coconut or almond milk that are free of lactose to begin with.

As with other dairy, kefir contains a quartet of items that can help strengthen your skeleton. That would be protein (good for your muscles, too), calcium, vitamin K2 and vitamin D. The latter is significant considering food sources of vitamin D are rare and it’s a necessary nutrient for proper calcium absorption.

The only apparent downside to kefir is the amount of added sugar many flavored versions contain. The American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than 38 grams of sugar per day, and a flavored kefir such as vanilla or berry can contain up to 10 grams of added sugar in a cup serving. The upshot is that you should grab hold of plain flavored kefir to keep your added sugar intake in check.

How to use more kefir:

  • Blend it into protein shakes
  • Try as a replacement for buttermilk in recipes such as pancakes
  • Use it to make creamy salad dressings and dips
  • Soak oats in kefir for overnight oats

One to buy: Maple Hill Organic Plain Kefir

Made using milk from grass-fed cows that are raised using regenerative agricultural practices. As a dietitian, I appreciate the elementary ingredient list that contains only organic whole milk and live & active cultures.

2. Kimchi

1109 Kimchi shutterstock_712852456
naito29 / Shutterstock

A Korean staple that is made when vegetables are mixed with a fiery garlic chili seasoning and left to ferment for several days by lactic acid bacteria. Those helpful bacteria eventually convert the natural sugars in the vegetables into lactic acid, a preservative that is also responsible for kimchi’s distinctive taste. Napa cabbage and daikon radish are traditionally the most common veggies used in the mix but these days you’ll find kimchi made from all sorts of other items including Brussels sprouts and green beans. You can ‘kimchi’ just about anything. A good kimchi will bring to the table four poles of flavor: salty, sweet, sour, and spicy.

Interestingly, both the bugs and the fiery chili pepper in kimchi could be beneficial to your gut health. Consumption of capsaicin, the spicy compound found in red peppers, was associated with changes in the gut microbial structure that increased diversity and short-chain fatty acids abundance, according to a study in the journal Nutrients. Researchers suggested these outcomes may be responsible for some of the health benefits associated with consuming capsaicin.

You can now find kimchi at most larger grocers, though Korean moms and grandma’s are still known to make the best stuff. Most brands are made with fish sauce, so if your diet is plant-only you’ll need to find one produced without it.

How to use kimchi:

  • Use it as a topping for burgers, sandwiches, tacos and even pizza
  • Add some to scrambled eggs
  • Stir it into stews and soups
  • Make it an exciting ingredient in stir-fry
  • Incorporate kimchi into homemade salsas and slaws
  • Blend some with mayo or Greek yogurt to make an exciting sauce for everything from corn on the cob to grilled fish to roasted veggies.

One to buy: Mother in Law’s Everyday Kimchi Seaweed Sempio Kimchi Original

A slow, cool fermentation process boosts flavor, improves texture, and ramps up the bacterial count. The addition of seaweed is next-level.

3. Sauerkraut

1109 Sauerkraut shutterstock_751252465
sasha2109 / Shutterstock

Submerged in a salty liquid for several days, cabbage slowly ferments into a crunchy, tangy condiment. Think of sauerkraut as the Western world’s answer to kimchi. These days, you can find kraut made with beets, carrots, apples, and more.

Lab analysis has shown that sauerkraut typically offers up a payload of Lactobacillus strains with strong probiotic potential. So, yes, a gut-benefiting food. And don’t forget you also get the nutritional benefits of eating cabbage including vitamin C and glucosinolates compounds that may have some anti-cancer powers.

Like so many good-intention foods in the American supermarket, sauerkraut can be bastardized. Namely, by pasteurizing (heating) it which lays waste to any beneficial bacterial count. To guarantee it still has probiotics, look for the words “unpasteurized” or “raw” on labels. The product should also state that it needs to be refrigerated. Or make your own which is way easier than you think. Sauerkraut brine is also a versatile ingredient and can be used in recipes such as salad dressings and sauces.

How to use sauerkraut:

  • A couple of forkfuls can instantly jazz up your lunch sandwiches
  • Use as a condiment on burgers
  • Fold into grilled cheese
  • Add to soups and stews
  • Top avocado toast with a heaping of kraut
  • Stir sauerkraut into tuna salad and potato salad

One to buy: Wildbrine Red Beet & Cabbage Kraut

Made with red cabbage and beet, this crunchy guise of kraut is a surefire way to add a splash of color to your meals. Pear adds a touch of sweetness and the ginger supplies a little zing.

4. Miso

Person holding a bowl of probiotic filled miso paste thats good for your gut health
successo images

Long popular in parts of Asia, particularly Japan, this aged condiment has now gone from being an oddity in Western households to much more commonplace. Though several varieties exist, the miso we most often find on store shelves is made from cooked whole soybeans which are combined with koji (a bacteria starter), salt, and rice or barley. Over months (or even years!), the enzymes in the koji work together with microorganisms in the environment to break down the structure of the beans and grains to produce an umami-rich paste that is similar in consistency to nut butter.

Since miso is considered a fermented “live” food it is not too far of a stretch to say that similarly to items like yogurt and sauerkraut, it should be able to boost the population of friendly bacteria in your gut thereby helping to improve digestive and immune health. Aspergillus oryzae appears to be the main bacterial strain found in miso, of which potential health benefits still need to be

uncovered. We do know that the fermentation process breaks down the structure of the beans into easier digesting forms of amino acids and carbs. That means when you can eat miso with less risk of clearing out the room afterward.

Some research including this study and this one found that adding miso to a starchy carb, in the case of this research white rice, can lower its glygemic index value by impacting digestion rates. The glycemic index (GI) is an indicator of how fast a particular food raises blood sugar levels and it’s thought that consuming too many high GI foods can raise the risk for poor health, particularly developing type 2 diabetes. So including miso in meals with high amounts of carbs like rice and pasta could bring about a better blood sugar response.

And, certainly, miso as a condiment can be a great method to add low-calorie flavor to foods which is helpful if you are looking for ways to add excitement to your meals but in a way that makes it easier to keep your flat belly.

Reddish-brown “dark” miso, which results from a longer fermentation process and greater soybean-to-koji ratio, has a bold, saltier flavor. Light yellow miso is less salty with a subtle tartness; and white miso, which goes through the shortest fermentation period and contains a proportionally high amount of koji to soybeans, features a mellow, lightly sweet taste.

A question that remains is what impact heating miso has on its level of probiotics. Using it in hot soups and stews may kill off the beneficial live critters. Historically, Asian cultures take care to treat it delicately and add it at the end of cooking. For instance, a common practice is to remove a small amount of the warm liquid, stir the miso into this and then add this mixture to the dish at the end of cooking.

How to use miso:

  • Try whisking into salad dressings and ketchup
  • Stir a tablespoon or two into mashed potatoes
  • Use it to add depth of flavor to chicken noodle, lentil, and other soups
  • Mix miso with tahini for a sauce that is great strewn over roasted veggies and grain bowls
  • Make it the backbone of a glaze for fish like salmon
  • Blend into egg yolks when making deviled eggs

One to buy: Cold Mountain Light Yellow Miso

Its mellow flavor is a great baptism for miso newbies.

5. Kombucha

1109 Kombucha shutterstock_1461778724
Anna Fedorova_it / Shutterstock

This on-trend fizzy drink is made by fermenting a brew of sugar and tea with a SCOBY—which resembles a jelly-like pancake and stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Essentially, the microbes eat up the sugar which is why unsweetened kombucha contains little if any sugar. The drink has a slightly sour, almost vinegar-like taste, and most brands will include other flavorings like hibiscus, ginger, or lime.

Beyond fertilizing your gut with helpful micro-critters, kombucha made from black and green tea has been demonstrated to be a viable source of antioxidant compounds including flavonoids and polyphenols which may have varying health benefits. There is also some research to suggest that drinking kombucha could help some people better manage their blood sugar numbers. The complex mix of chemical compounds, live microorganisms, and kombucha’s low pH, could be why the tangy drink helps keep blood sugar nice and steady.

Beware that some brands pump sugar back into their kombucha after the fermentation process. You want to look for a drink with no more than 8 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving, keeping in mind that some bottles base their nutrition facts on two servings. Chug back a whole bottle and you could be approaching the sugar red zone if you aren’t careful with nutrition label reading.

If you are a kombucha newbie it’s best to ease into it by sipping only about four ounces per day to get your digestive system used to it. Too much, too fast can lead to digestive woes like excessive gas, diarrhea, or bloating.

And know that once you arm yourself with the extra-terrestrial-looking SCOPY and get a hang of the brewing process, going DIY with kombucha is an easy process and costs way less than the store-bought booch.

How to use kombucha:

  • Of course, drink it straight up
  • Use it in frozen treats like popsicles
  • Try kombucha in cocktails and mocktails
  • It can be used instead of vinegar in salad dressing
  • Add it to a marinade for meats

One to buy: Remedy Orange Squeeze

Each can of the organic tangy drink contains no added sugar and the probiotics aren’t watered down with fruit juice – a bad habit of several brands. They are also upfront about how many live cultures to expect in each drink.