By now you’ve probably heard of probiotics—the good bacteria that plays an essential role in everything from mood to weight maintenance. And how could you not?! It seems they’re everywhere lately—and not just in the Greek yogurt aisle. Lab-grown strains of probiotics are popping up in things like super-sweet ice cream and juice with added sugar. These products are perfect examples of science gone wrong, and frankly, it’s a bit ironic.
Multiple studies have found that diets rich in sugary products are associated with a high ratio of bad bacteria to good bacteria in the gut. This can result in health issues like weight gain and even premature mental decline. Experts believe the problem stems from sugar being the primary source of fuel for the fungi and yeast that can conquer and kill beneficial probiotics.
That said, it’s important to choose your sources of probiotics carefully to ensure you get the most bang for your buck. To help you fill your grocery cart with the right selections, we’ve identified the best and the worst of the lot; consider this your official Eat This, Not That! guide to probiotic products. In need of even more health food shopping tips? Don’t miss these 50 Best Supermarket Shopping Tips Ever.
FIRST, THE WORST…
Sugar with Probiotics
This might be a great replacement for sugar in your morning tea or coffee, but it doesn't make much sense to us that they're pairing belly beneficial bacteria with the food source for the bad, waist-widening bacteria. It's like drinking coffee while popping a sleeping pill—what's the point?
Probiotic Dried Fruit
Dried fruit certainly sounds like a great idea—it's got the word "fruit" in it!—but it's also on our list of 25 "Healthy" Habits That Can Make You Gain Weight. That's because dried fruits are easier to overeat that their whole counterparts. Plus, they come with less of that tummy-filling water that helps keep you satiated as you munch. There are far better ways to sneak in some probiotics.
Baking Mixes with Probiotics
Although many cake and brownie brands that add probiotics to their baking mixes tend to be on the healthier side, that doesn’t change the fact that they're sugar-filled. Plus, probiotics have a very poor resistance to heat, explains registered dietitian Lisa Moskovitz. That means they probably contain very few gut-healthy benefits after they’ve taken a trip through the oven.
Juice with Probiotics
Don’t let all those vitamins and fruits fool you. When something contains 30+ grams of sugar in a small 8-ounce serving, it’s a pass!
Protein Powder with Probiotics
Nope, you're not even in the clear with plant-based protein powders! The makers behind the brown rice and hemp blend pictured above added tons of brown rice syrup solids to their product, which ups the sugar count to a whopping 20 grams per standard serving. If you're looking for a vegan protein powder with probiotics—but only 1 gram of sugar—check out Kashi's GoLean Protein Powder, available on Amazon.com for $25.
Probiotic Ice Cream
Don't fall for the fact that this ice cream is made from calcium-rich, pasture-raised, organic whole milk. Brio isn't just filled with antioxidants and probiotics; it's also packed with 16 grams of sugar per tiny half-cup serving! And it’s not just this brand that’s a no-go. Any ice cream on the market that’s stamped with a probiotic claim will likely be too sugary for inclusion in your daily diet, because, well, it’s still a dessert.
Probiotic Dark Chocolate
Studies show that chocolate is indeed a suitable way to deliver probiotics to your belly, so go ahead and eat this sweet treat if you’re intrigued. But before you shell out the extra cash, just know that a regular dark chocolate bar may be just as beneficial. Whatever you decide, though, watch your portion size. Despite its health benefits, chocolate is still caloric. For more nutritious fare you should scale back on, check out these 20 Healthy Foods You Better Eat In Moderation—stat!
Probiotic Granola Bars
Probiotics are a lot like popsicles—they don’t do well in the heat. For that reason, Udi adds the probiotic Bacillus coagulans into their flax, almond, amaranth and quinoa bars after they’re done baking. But despite the better baking method, you can’t rely on dry snack foods as your only or best source of probiotics, says Moskovitz. Plus, these particular bars have 10 grams of sugar and just 2 grams of satiating fiber, which isn’t the best ratio of nutrients when you’re trying to lose belly fat.
Flaxseed with Probiotics
Although a typical bag of flax will cost you about 42 cents an ounce, probiotic varieties go for about $1.25 an ounce, which is more than three times as much! “Be cautious of cost when considering which probiotic foods to buy,” warns Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN, founder of Family. Food. Fiesta. “If food makers are charging more for the product because of the added bacteria, it may be a good indicator that it's more a marketing ploy than a product with many additional benefits.” She suggests you stick to regular ground flax (it makes a great addition to oatmeal, smoothies, and cold cereals) and get your probiotics elsewhere.
Gummies with Probiotics
If you're looking for fruit snacks for your little one, start with these 22 Best & Worst Fruity Snacks. You won't find Little Duck's Tiny Gummies on the list. Even though they're made without added sugars or preservatives and are all-organic, your kid will still be consuming more health-harming sugar than belly-boosting probiotics.
NOW, THE BEST…
Think of kefir—popular in Eastern Europe but growing in prominence stateside—as a tart, more liquid yogurt. What makes kefir so great for your gut is that it usually contains at least 10 live and active strains of bacteria, compared to most yogurts, which usually have three. And Lifeways Veggie Kefir, which serves up a full serving of veggies in each container, is no exception. “The product contains 12 different probiotic strains, and a high dosage, too—more than 10 billion,” says Koszyk. Bonus: “Since kefir has fewer milk sugars than regular milk, many people who don't tolerate milk well can sip kefir without an issue.” Each one has 110 calories and 15 grams of sugar, which is a bit on the high side, so you shouldn’t drink them every day.
Eden Foods combines soybeans and barley, then puts them through the traditional koji fermentation process to produce a salty and thick miso paste that their customers can’t get enough of. Add the stuff to soup, use it as a seasoning alternative to salt or soy sauce, or roll up your sleeves and use it to make a salad dressing. Simply combine 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar with 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and 1 scant teaspoon of miso paste in a large bowl. Toss the mixture over a bed of greens and enjoy. So simple! You can pick up a bag of our go-to Eden Foods’ miso on Amazon.com for $13.75.
Greek or Icelandic Yogurt
The most popular probiotic, yogurt, is made by adding two strains of bacteria, Streptococcus thermophilus, and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, into pasteurized milk. The milk thickens up from the lactic acid that's produced by the bacteria, becoming the creamy product that you trust to build muscle. But although most Icelandic and Greek yogurt can be a trusted source of protein, not all will provide probiotics. Some products are heat-treated after fermentation, which typically kills most of the beneficial active cultures, so be sure to check the label for the phrase "live active cultures." And be sure to stay away from the ones with added sugars, which will do more for the bad bacteria than they will for the good. We’re big fans of Smari Organic Icelandic Yogurt, which you can pick up for $1.72 on Amazon.com.
“Sauerkraut is a naturally fermented food that has the microorganisms Lactobacillus bacteria, which crowds out bad bacteria in the gut and allows the beneficial gut flora to flourish,” explains nutrition expert Nikki Ostrower. “This helps to lower irritable bowel syndrome symptoms like gas, bloating, and indigestion. Also, the sour taste in fermented foods are organic acids that help probiotics to really work their magic.” We like Pickled Planets’ organic raw sauerkraut. You can buy it on Amazon.com for $9.95.
Kimchi is an Asian fermented veggie dish, made with cabbage, radishes, and scallions. That distinctive red color comes from a seasoned paste of red pepper, salted shrimp, or kelp powder. The unique strains found in kimchi won't just heal your gut, they might also help you stay slim. Researchers at Kyung Hee University in Korea induced obesity in lab rats by feeding them a high-fat diet and then fed one group of them Lactobacillus brevis, the culture strain found in kimchi. The probiotic suppressed the diet-induced increase in weight gain by 28 percent! We like Pickled Planets’ Korean kim chi, which is available for $11.99 on Amazon.com.
Brewskis shouldn't be your go-to source of probiotics, but fermented alcoholic beverages like beer do actually provide some benefits when consumed in moderation. The vitamins from the barley grain that beer is made out of surviving the fermentation and filtering process and can lead to good cholesterol and decrease blood-clot formation. We’re fans of Amstel Light because it has just 95 calories. That’s why we named it one of these 15 Best Light Beers in America.
Salt-water-brined olives undergo a natural fermentation, and the lactic acid bacteria naturally present on the olive give these little fruits their distinctive flavor. Two strains of live cultures, Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus pentosus, have been isolated in olives, and L. plantarum shows great potential for getting you that flat stomach you're after. This strain can balance your gut bugs and decrease bloating, particularly in people with irritable bowel syndrome, according to a study published in the American Society for Clinical Nutrition. We like the flavored packaged variety, pictured above, because you can take them on the go for a quick and healthy snack. Nab a pack of 10 for $14.97 from Amazon.com.
Pickles are another classic fermented-veggie option. "But it's important to distinguish that not all pickled vegetables are fermented," say dieticians Willow Jarosh MS, RD, and Stephanie Clarke, MS, RD, co-owners of C&J Nutrition. "To get the health benefits from eating fermented foods, be sure that the pickled veggie you're eating is, in fact, fermented—and not just pickled." Make your own fermented pickles and other veggies at home with a starter, salt, and water, or try Kruegermann’s naturally fermented pickles. They’re $8 on Amazon.com.
Certain Cottage Cheeses
To be clear: Not all cottage cheeses contain probiotics. But Good Culture’s tubs are packed with live and active cultures, and they come in a variety of sweet and savory flavors like tomato, olive, and blueberry açaí chia. Though dairy products are packed with slow-digesting protein and have been shown to enhance probiotic absorption, that doesn’t make this product a clear-cut winner or loser. “Cottage cheese is generally high in sodium—and this line is no different—so people with elevated blood pressure may want to skip it. People who bloat easily and those with lactose intolerance should also pass on it,” advises Koszyk. The Bottom Line: This is definitely healthy enough to be an Eat This! but don’t make it your go-to source of probiotics unless the rest of your diet is relatively low in salt.
If you’re a lactose-intolerant cheese lover, a kefir-based, crumbly salad-topper may be for you. Kefir, a tangy, sour-tasting drink made from fermented cow's milk, is 99 percent lactose free and contains 12 key cultures for a happy, healthy belly. “[Products like these are] minimally processed and are a good source of calcium. Overall, it’s not a bad way to get some probiotics in,” says Koszyk
Low-Sugar Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is like getting a superhero and a sidekick in just one bar. That's because it's been found to be a source of prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics are a source of food for the microbes in your gut, which convert the candy into anti-inflammatory compounds, researchers at the American Chemical Society found. And probiotic bugs will colonize your belly to assist with digestion and strengthen your belly bugs so you can fix an off-kilter gut. The reason? Chocolate is actually a fermented food. To reap the benefits, the ACS researchers recommend a cacao content of 70 percent or above. We like Alter Eco Dark Blackout 85% Organic Cacao, which is $5.50 on Amazon.com.
You'll often see tempeh as the vegan alternative to bacon—and, believe us, it's much better for your gut. Tempeh is a fermented soy product made with a yeast starter that has a meaty, tender bite with a neutral flavor; it's an open canvas for all your favorite seasonings. Besides the belly benefits, a 3-ounce serving of this grain-based tempeh boasts 16 grams of protein and 6 percent of the day's recommended calcium.