Get Cultured: Dietary Sources of Probiotics

Updated from a post I originally wrote and published for  Lymenaide, February 6, 2010.

Support bacteria – they’re the only culture some people have.
— Steven Wright

See that jar of Kohlrabi Garlic Pickles up there? It's teaming with happy, healthy bacteria.

Bacteria gets a bad rap - bacteria is our friend. Sure, there are lots of bacteria out there that do everything from make food spoil to make body odor stink to make people very sick.  As someone with chronic Lyme Disease, I'm quite familiar (and unhappy) with the constant microbial battle going on inside my body with those nasty little buggers. For years, Borrelia bacteria has been compromising my immune system and screwing with my body.  My challenge since starting treatment has been to kick those bad bacteria out and replace them with the friendly bacteria that will make me healthier.

Our bodies rely on healthy bacteria to function properly - without it, we'd die. The flora (bacteria) in your gut effects everything.  Beneficial lactobactilli bacteria help your body deal with all the bad bacteria appropriately, stimulating the immune system to react.  Bacteria also help your body digest food and assimilate nutrients, and break down toxins.  If you are on antibiotics, it is clearing out ALL your bacteria, both good and bad, so it is important that you take steps to help restore good bacteria to your gut.  Otherwise yeast infections and Candida will take over, and your immune system and digestion will suffer.  

Because of this, foods and beverages rich in live and active cultures (healthy, good bacteria) are an important thing to include in everyone's diet, especially if you have been on antibiotics or have compromised immunity.  Why?  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about probiotics. Probiotics have become a bit of a trendy thing lately; they can be found in everything from cereal to protein bars to sugary juice to chewy chocolate snacks.  Truth is, the only way those probiotics are actually going to do you any good is if they are alive, and the less processed the source, the better.  Your boxed probiotic cereal or probiotic chewy chocolate-flavored supplement just won’t cut it.  

Other than a quality probiotic supplement, the best way to get live and active cultures is in whole foods dietary sources, like fermented dairy products, cultured vegetables, fermented beverages, and cultured nut and seed yogurts, among other things.   In an attempt to help you befriend all that great bacteria that nature offers us, I wrote up this freakishly long list of foods and beverages that are excellent sources of live and active cultures.  These things are easy to incorporate into your diet, and most of them are easy and fun to make at home. Enjoy, and happy reading and eating!

And by the way...For recipes of cultured foods, check out my Lacto-Fermented and Cultured Foods Recipes Index.

Dietary Sources of Live & Active Cultures

Probiotic supplements

Good for everyone to take, but very important if you are on antibiotics.  Probiotic supplements are available in powders or capsules.  Most commercial varieties – especially those that are shelf-stable and unrefrigerated – aren’t worth it.  Buy refrigerated varieties from reputable manufacturers. I have used a few brands, currently I take UltraFlora Dairy-Free Capsules by Metagenix, two in the morning and two at night before bed on an empty stomach.   Some people take them with food, some people take them on an empty stomach.


If you tolerate dairy, kefir is a great choice.  It contains more bacteria than yogurt,as well as beneficial yeasts, and is often easier to digest. It has a thinner consistency than yogurt, and is more of a beverage. I have seen cow and goat kefirs available in stores.  Rather than go for flavored varieties that often include added sweeteners or other ingredients, you are best to choose organic plain, natural kefir, from animals that are antibiotic and hormone free.  If you don’t like the taste of plain kefir, you can add your own spices or a couple drop of plain or flavored liquid stevia.  If you eat pasteurized dairy, Lifeway Kefir is widely available in most grocery stores, and they make a wide variety of flavors, and Redwood Farms makes a delicious goat milk kefir.  If possible, however, kefir made from raw milk is best.  You can make your own kefir from pasteurized or raw milk using kefir starter cultures or kefir grains.  For sources for raw milk, yogurt, and kefir, check the Weston A Price Foundation campaign for Real Milk website.  For a good description of how to make your own kefir with kefir grains, see the Nourished Kitchen.

For those of you that can't tolerate even raw dairy kefir, SoDelicious now makes CoconutMilk Kefir. I do not purchase this produce because it is high in sugar and I don't like purchasing things in plastic packaging, however, it still carries all the benefits of live active cultures like dairy kefir does. Word on the blogosphere is that it is pretty darn delicious, so try it and see for yourself!


Everyone knows yogurt is good for them these days!   If you tolerate dairy, there are a variety of yogurts available: cow, goat, sheep, and even water buffalo.  Rather than go for flavored varieties that often include added sweeteners or other ingredients, you are best to choose organic plain, natural yogurt, from animals that are antibiotic and hormone free.  If you don’t like the taste of plain yogurt, add your own spices or a couple drop of plain or flavored liquid stevia.  .  If you are willing to eat pasteurized dairy, Stoneyfield Farm makes very good yogurt.  But if possible, yogurt made from raw milk is best.  For sources for raw milk, yogurt, and kefir, check the Weston A Price Foundation campaign for Real Milk website.  Making your own yogurt is very easy, and an excellent choice if you have a source for high-quality milk.  SEe a step by step guide here.  You can also make other types of cultured milk products with the proper starter cultures – see Cultures for Health for all sorts of options!

Dairy-free yogurt and kefir products (soy, rice, coconut) – DAIRY FREE

For those of you that can't tolerate even raw dairy, many companies now make yogurt and kefir products  from rice, soy, and coconut.  The newest one I've heard of is SoDelicious Coconut Milk Kefir. I do not purchase this produce because it is high in sugar and I don't like purchasing things in plastic packaging, however, it still carries all the benefits of live active cultures like dairy kefir does. Word on the blogosphere is that it is pretty darn delicious, so try it and see for yourself!

While these products do provide live and active cultures, they are also highly processed, full of other additives, thickeners, and stabilizers, and often include large amounts of added sweeteners.  While these work as yogurt/kefir substitutes in recipes and may be helpful from time to time, and may be easier to feed children than piles of sauerkraut, there are much better food options out there for non-dairy live cultures (keep on reading).  

Young Coconut Water Kefir – DAIRY FREE

Fresh young coconut water that has been cultured with kefir grains. Excellent if you are dairy intolerant.  The coconut kefir movement was pushed by Donna Gates of the Body Ecology Diet, read here for more information.  Not only is it full of beneficial bacteria, it is also supposed help cleanse the liver, tonify the intestines, and be a good source of electrolytes. I just learned how to butcher young coconuts, and hope get my hands on some coconut kefir starter soon to try making my own coconut kefir. 

Water Kefir – DAIRY FREE

In its most basic form, it is water that has been cultured with kefir grains and organic raw sugar.   I was brewing my own for a while earlier this year, and really enjoyed it and found it beneficial. It is lightly carbonated, sweet, and totally versatile – you can flavor it a million ways!  The kefir grains eat up the sugars and leave a tasty beverage loaded with probiotics.  The only way to make it is with special water kefir grains; you can order grains from Cultures for Health, a great source for starter grains and cultures, or try to find them through a culture swap or a friend who has grains (they multiply and you can divide and share them!). 

Kombucha – DAIRY FREE

Kombucha is a naturally fermented tea that is a great source of beneficial bacteria.  It is fizzy and carbonated, with a slightly sour flavor.  It is fermented using a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts), also known as a mother,  which is this weird translucent brownish blob.   As long as the SCOBY has a source of sugar to feed on, it will do its thing – so kombucha is brewed using tea and sugar.  The sugar is eaten during the fermentaiton process, during which the carbonation and beneficial bacteria are produced.  Kombucha can be purchased at stores in a variety of flavors, and can be made at home with a little know how and the right stuff.  You can make it at home using a SCOBY, tea, and sugar.  Find a SCOBY on Cultures for Healthor see if you can get one from a friend who brews. If you live in the Twin Cities area of MInneapolis, you can get a SCOBY from me.   :)

Since G.T.'s Kombucha, the leading producer of commercial kombucha in the US, was pulled off the shelves over the summer due to some unfortunate bad press from a drunken HOllywood starlet and resulting FDA investigations, the avialability of kombucha in stores has been less. All the other brands I've tried are not as good - and I've tried almost every brand I can get my hands on. I've been brewing kombucha myself since March, and it is much more affordable, more delicious, and more customizable option. 

People with significant mold or yeast sensitivies may react to kombucha.  It also contains trace amounts of alcohol.  If you are very sensitive, be careful with kombucha, and introduce it to your diet gradually to test for tolerance.

Beet Kvass

Beet kvass is a fermented beverage made with beets, water, salt, and whey. Some very traditional recipes call for soaking it with bread as well, but most recipes I've come across lately do not include it. This drink is valuable for its medicinal qualities and as a digestive aid. It is an excellent blood tonic, promotes regularity, aids digestion, alkalizes the blood, cleanses the liver and is a good treatment for kidney stones and other ailments. Beet kvass may also be used in place of vinegar in salad dressings and as an addition to soups.

When I was experimenting with raw goat dairy in the summer of 2009, I was drinking a lot of kvass. The flavor is intensely beety, with a sharp fermented tang and a small amount of carbonation. Some coworkers and I were all addicted to the stuff. I have never seen recipes that do not use whey, so for people with dairy allergies or casein intolerance, it is not an acceptable choice. I stopped drinking it last year because I noticed it causing digestive issues (darn whey!!!).  However, now that I am tolerating butter again, I am hoping that means a little whey would work...once I get my hands on some raw whey, I'll try it again!

Want to try your hand at making it? Here is a great and simplerecipe from Nourished Magazine, written bythe  traditional foods expert Sally Fallon herself!


Miso is used in Japanese cuisine as a seasoning, and is traditionally made from soybeans and rice fermented with koji culture, a special type of mold.  While most varieties are soy-based,South River Miso also makes excellent soy-free varieties from chickpeas and azuki beans.  Miso has an earthy, salty flavor, varying from mild and sweet to strong and robust, depending on the length of fermentation and the ingredients used.

  • Miso should never be boiled or heated in a microwave for ultimate benefit.
  • If adding to soups or warm sauces, add at the end of cooking and heat just enough to warm through.  Dissolve the paste in a small amount of liquid and add to larger batch.
  • Add to salad dressings.
  • I like a blob mixed with hot water for a nourishing warm drink.
  • Use in place of butter on bread, crackers, vegetables, or corn on the cob

pickles as medicine? you bet!

Raw sauerkraut & other lacto-fermented/cultured vegetables – DAIRY FREE

Naturally cultured, or lacto-fermented, vegetables are full of good lactobacilli bacteria and enzymes that can help restore proper gut flora, increasing immune system function and regulating digestion.  While fermenting things naturally facilitaties the growth of yeasts and bacteria, they are different yeasts that are better-tolerated and can actually help restore proper bacterial balances in the body.  Yeast-sensitive individuals and people with overgrowth conditions can often tolerate lacto-fermented vegetables in moderation.  Eating real, raw sauerkraut is one way to do this. Cabbage is naturally antibacterial, and when fermented, is a powerful tool in regulating healthy gut bacteria.  In addition to cabbage, many other vegetables can also be fermented for the same benefit.  Naturally occurring lactic acid In order to make sure your sauerkraut has live cultures, buy refrigerated, jarred varieties of sauerkraut or other fermented vegetables (not canned or processed), or make it yourself at home.It is easy to ferment your own veggies, and much more affordable.  All you need are jars, water, salt, and vegetables, no vinegar necessary!  I love making cultured veggies. It is super easy, and so good for you. Check out my Lacto-Fermented Recipe index for a full list of all my cultured vegetable recipes. 

There are also vegetable culture starters available if you want to add an extra bacterial boost to your vegetables – I’ve never used them, but some people swear by them.

Fermented nut/seed yogurts and cheeses – DAIRY FREE

Raw nuts and/or seeds that have been soaked, blended, and allowed to ferment.  The naturally occurring bacteria kills the rancidity, creating a tart and tangy fermented paste similar to thick yogurt or cheese, and full of good bacteria.  It is full of live and active culture.  Works very well with cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds.  This is a very easy to digest way to eat nuts and seeds, since the bactera starts to break down the protein and fats and makes the nutrients very easy to assimilate.  This stuff is an acquired taste – I like it, but it is a bit tart!

Basic Yogurt/Cheese Recipe:

  • 1 – 1 1/2 cup raw seeds or nuts (sunflower, pumpkin, cashew, almond, sesame, macadamia, hemp)
  • 1 tsp miso
  • 1 cup water

method 1: Grind the nuts/seeds until powdery fine in a high powered blender or coffee grider.  Blend 1 cup of water with the nut powder, then add remaining water and miso and blend well.  Place in a jar, cover with a towel, and let sit on teh counter for 8 hours.  If more tartness is desired, ferment up to 20 hours.

method 2: soak the seeds or nuts in 2-3 cups water for 4-6 hours, then drain.  Place in blender with miso and 1 cup of fresh water, and blend until smooth.  Place in a jar, cover with towel, and let ferment for 8 hours, or as long as 20.

For both methods, you can spoon thickened “cheese” off the top, and save the liquidy whey for salad dressings, or mix it together.  Use the cheese as is, or strain through cheesecloth for something thicker.  Refrigerate leftovers.

Recipe adapted/combined from Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford, and Vibrant Living by Natalie Cederquist and James Levin, M.D.

Other sources of live beneficial bacteria:

Introducing Cultured Foods to Your Diet

Start slow! Your body will need to adjust, especially if you have yeast imbalances.  Too much fermented food can irritate Candida and other yeast imbalances, so the key is to not overdo it.  I’ve read that ideally, you should try to eat something fermented everyday, if not with every meal.  Fermented foods needn’t be eaten in large amounts, small amounts at each meal will suffice, and will actually help you digest your food.  For example, drink a small cup of miso before a meal, use cultured vegetables on a salad, add sauerkraut to soup, or have a glass of kombucha or kefir for an afternoon treat.  Try using fermented seed cheeses as a dip for raw vegetables, or as a spread for your favorite GF crackers or muffins.

After a couple of weeks of including these probiotic foods in your diet, you should hopefully notice improved digestion, and perhaps even strengthened immunity.  Will it make your Lyme go away?  NO, not directly. But supporting good bacteria will help strengthen your immune system, support the detoxification process, and improve digestion, allowing you to gain more nourishment from your food and assimilate more of those much needed vitamins and minerals!  It will also help keep those nasty bacteria at bay, reducing the risk of developing Candida/yeast imbalances and yeast infections.

Sources of Starter Cultures & Grains

More Information

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