Food as Medicine: Probiotic Foods

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What are probiotics?

Probiotics are bacteria that benefit your child’s gut health. You can support your child’s gut health by including foods that contain probiotics in your family’s diet. Foods containing probiotics are also naturally full of enzymes, minerals, and vitamins. You can make many of these foods at home.

What are the benefits of eating probiotics?

  • Increases helpful bacteria by replacing bacteria lost due to antibiotics, illness, and poor diet.
  • Increases ability to fight infections by strengthening the lining of the intestine and the immune system.
  • Reduces harmful bacteria by creating an acidic environment and releasing chemicals that destroy them.
  • Produces vitamins and helps body absorb minerals.
  • Decreases inflammation and protects against allergies and chronic diseases.
  • Improves bowel movements by adding bulk and decreasing bacteria that cause diarrhea.

Are there any risks?

  • Some people, especially people who already have stomach and bowel symptoms, may notice increased gas, bloating, or mild cramping.
  • It is best to start with small servings of probiotic-containing foods and increase gradually. You might notice that there is a limit to how much or how often your child is able to tolerate these foods.
  • If your child has a health condition that increases the risk for infection or has a central line, speak to their health care provider before giving probiotics.

What foods contain probiotics?

  • Probiotics are found in fermented foods, which are also called cultured foods.
  • Fermentation of vegetables often involves adding salt, so fermented foods can be a great source of flavor in small amounts.
  • High temperatures kill the bacteria, so avoid excessive heating. (Warm not hot)
    • Pasteurization of dairy products uses heat to kill bacteria, but probiotics are often added back later.
    • Canning uses heat to kill bacteria, so choose pickles in the refrigerated-foods section. In each case, look for “live active cultures” on food labels.
  • Try to eat a variety of these foods. Different types of fermented foods provide different strains of bacteria.
  • You can learn to ferment foods safely at home. This is usually less expensive than buying them and allows you to adjust the flavor to what your child prefers.

Here are some fermented foods that naturally contain probiotics, and some ways to try them with your family.

  • Yogurt and kefir (milk or non-dairy based, such as soy, coconut, and water)
    • Add yogurt/kefir cream to smoothies and homemade popsicles.
    • Use in recipes when milk is used.
    • Kefir juices are a good way to start for someone who likes juice and seltzer.
    • Frozen yogurt does not provide probiotics.
  • Sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles
    • Look for “live active cultures” or use homemade.
    • Add juice from fermented vegetables to soup and dressings.
    • Add to sandwiches, salads, and other meals for crunch, color, and flavor.
    • Mix sauerkraut with shredded apples.
  • Miso, tamari (soy)
    • Add salty taste to soups (after cooking) and dressings.
  • Tempeh (soy)
    • Steam chunks or crumbles, then marinate and use in place of meat in pasta sauce, barbecue sauce, pot pies, and other dishes.
  • Kombucha
    • Fermented tea.
  • Sour cream, cottage cheese, aged cheese
    • Look for “live active cultures” or use homemade fermented dairy foods.
    • Top vegetables with sour cream or aged cheese.
    • Top cottage cheese with fresh fruit.
  • Buttermilk, acidophilus milk
    • Use in place of milk in recipes.
    • Make ice cream.
    • Make tangy, creamy dressings like Caesar and ranch.

How do we start? How much is needed?

  • Remember to start with a small amount and gradually increase portions and number of servings per day.
  • After a while, see if you can pair prebiotic and probiotic-containing foods as part of at least one meal per day to help them work together.

What about supplements?

  • Probiotic supplements can also help improve your child’s gut health. Speak with your child’s pediatrician or gastroenterologist before starting supplements.

Resources for fermenting foods at home

Note: Sites below provided for information purposes. They were not developed at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and CHOP is not responsible for their content.

Additional resources

November 2022