From spicy kimchi to fizzy kombucha, fermented food and drink offer impressive health benefits thanks to their whopping content of beneficial bacteria. Not only do these probiotics help re-establish healthy flora in the digestive system and improve the absorption of nutrients, they can also boost immunity.
There’s one trick to know, however: high heat destroys the live, friendly bacteria that confer the therapeutic effects, so it’s key to look for unpasteurized products. Use this overview to get the scoop on the best fermented foods to eat now, and you’ll be on the road to wellness in no time.
The German take on fermented cabbage makes a tangy side dish for meaty mains. Look for “raw” unpasteurized sauerkraut in the refrigerated section of natural food stores. Not only does it deliver probiotics, it packs an antioxidant punch; the naturally high levels of vitamin C in cabbage are more easily absorbed thanks to the enzymes produced during the fermentation phase.
Preparing homemade sauerkraut is as simple as submerging shredded cabbage and salt in basic brine for seven to 10 days, so it’s one of the most popular fermented foods to make from scratch.
A crunchy fermented cabbage dish from Korea, kimchi gets its pungent flavor from a combination of chili paste, garlic, and fish sauce. The ancient, traditional process of making kimchi dates back to the 7th century, and its many forms extend beyond just traditional cabbage to include other vegetables such as cucumbers or even fruit such as Asian pear. Kimchi is delicious with plain rice or scrambled eggs and can spice up all kinds of other dishes such as lunchtime wraps or grilled meats. (When buying kimchi, look for labels saying “contains live cultures” or “naturally fermented.”)
Creamy and delicious, yogurt is the easiest grab-and-go probiotic option out there—and yes, all varieties, including Greek yogurt, contain healthy bacterial cultures. But to make sure you’re maximizing the possible benefits, look for yogurts with a Live & Active Culture (LAC) seal, given to products that contain at least 100 million cultures per gram at the time of manufacture. And it’s always a good idea to avoid varieties made with high-fructose corn syrup or artificial flavor. Opt for organic when possible.
First popularized in Russia in early the 1900s, kefir resembles a drinkable version of yogurt with pronounced tart or sour flavor notes. The fermentation process is the result of kefir “grains” composed of yeast and bacteria, which house many healthy microbes, including lactobacilli, and provide a powerful dose of probiotics. Milk-based kefir isn’t the only option these days. Another version starting to get attention is called “water kefir”—which uses those same grains to make a slightly fizzy drink from water (or coconut water) that can be tweaked with flavorful additions of fruit or tea leaves.
Traditionally made from fermented whole soy beans, but these days often blended with grains, beans and other vegetables, tempeh is a meat substitute with nutty flavor. Although it’s sometimes confused with tofu, tempeh has a chewier texture and higher content of probiotics, protein, fiber and vitamins than its softer, unfermented soy cousin. Although tempeh must be cooked—and the live cultures on its exterior will not survive the high heat—the interior of tempeh should retain its healthful enzymes.
Eaten in China since the third century B.C., miso is a traditional paste made from fermented soybeans that’s rich in amino acids and probiotics. Forgo “instant” miso soup powdered packets if you want to enjoy the health benefits miso has to offer, however. Instead, head for the miso paste in the refrigerated section. Try taking it beyond soup, by using the versatile paste in sauces and salad dressings. Depending on how long it’s aged, miso can vary in flavor and color: yellow miso is mild whereas red tastes more robust.
Kate Chynoweth is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, California.